de CLEYRE, Voltairine. The Dominant Idea

Philosophy. MaterialismPhilosophy. IdealismDE CLEYRE, Voltairine (1866-1912) AudioEdit

New York : Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1910. 16 p. ; 19 cm.

Harvard

You may also listen to this article on the LibriVox website

THE DOMINANT IDEA

ON EVERYTHING that lives, if one looks searchingly, is

limned the shadow line of an idea --- an idea, dead or

living, sometimes stronger when dead, with rigid,

unswerving lines that mark the living embodiment with the

stern immobile cast of the non-living. Daily we move

among these unyielding shadows, less pierceable, more

enduring than granite, with the blackness of ages in them,

dominating living, changing bodies, with dead, unchanging

souls. And we meet, also, living souls dominating dying

bodies – living ideas regnant over decay and death. Do not

imagine that I speak of human life alone. The stamp of

persistent or of shifting Will is visible in the grass-blade

rooted in its clod of earth, as in the gossamer web of being

that floats and swims far over our heads in the free world of

air.

Regnant ideas, everywhere! Did you ever see a dead vine

bloom? I have seen it. Last summer I trained some

morning-glory vines up over a second story balcony; and

every day they blew and curled in the wind, their white,

purple-dashed faces winking at the sun, radiant with

climbing life. Higher every day the green heads crept,

carrying their train of spreading fans waving before the sunseeking

blossoms. Then all at once some mischance

happened, some cut worm or some mischievous child tore

one vine off below, the finest and most ambitious one, of

course. In a few hours the leaves hung limp, the sappy stem

wilted and began to wither; in a day it was dead, --- all but

the top which still clung longingly to its support, with

bright head lifted. I mourned a little for the buds that could

never open now, and tied that proud vine whose work in the

world was lost. But the next night there was a storm, a

heavy, driving storm, with beating rain and blinding

lightning. I rose to watch the flashes, and lo! the wonder of

the world! In the blackness of the mid-NIGHT, in the fury

of wind and rain, the dead vine had flowered. Five white,

moon-faced blossoms blew gaily round the skeleton vine,

shining back triumphant at the red lightning. I gazed at

them in dumb wonder. Dear, dead vine, whose will had

been so strong to bloom, that in the hour of its sudden cutoff

from the feeding earth, it sent the last sap to its

blossoms; and, not waiting for the morning, brought them

forth in storm and flash, as white night-glories, which

should have been the children of the sun.

In the daylight we all came to look at the wonder,

marveling much, and saying, "Surely these must be the

last." But every day for three days the dead vine bloomed;

and even a week after, when every leaf was dry and brown,

and so thin you could see through it, one last bud, dwarfed,

weak, a very baby of a blossom, but still white and delicate,

with five purple flecks, like those on the live vine beside it,

opened and waved at the stars, and waited for the early sun.

Over death and decay the Dominant Idea smiled: the vine

was in the world to bloom, to bear white trumpet blossoms

dashed with purple; and it held its will beyond death.

The vine was in the world to bloom

Our modern teaching is, that ideas are but attendant

phenomena, impotent to determine the actions or relations

of life, as the image in the glass which should say to the

body it reflects: "I shall shape thee." In truth we know that

directly the body goes from before the mirror, the transient

image is nothingness; but the real body has its being to live,

and will live it, heedless of vanished phantoms of itself, in

response to the ever-shifting pressure of things without it.

It is thus that the so-called Materialist Conception of

History, the modern Socialists, and a positive majority of

Anarchists would have us look upon the world of ideas, –

shifting, unreal reflections, having naught to do in the

determination of Man’s life, but so many mirror

appearances of certain material relations, wholly powerless

to act upon the course of material things. Mind to them is in

itself a blank mirror, though in fact never wholly blank,

because always facing the reality of the material and bound

to reflect some shadow. To-day I am somebody, to-morrow

somebody else, if the scenes have shifted; my Ego is a

gibbering phantom, pirouetting in the glass, gesticulating,

transforming, hourly or momentarily, gleaming with the

phosphor light of a deceptive unreality, melting like the

mist upon the hills. Rocks, fields, woods, streams, houses,

goods, flesh, blood, bone, sinew, --- these are realities, with

definite parts to play, with essential characters that abide

under all changes; but my Ego does not abide; it is

manufactured afresh with every change of these.

I think this unqualified determinism of the material is a

great and lamentable error in our modern progressive

movement; and while I believe it was a wholesome antidote

to the long-continued blunder of Middle Age theology, viz.,

that Mind was an utterly irresponsible entity making laws

of its own after the manner of an Absolute Emperor,

without logic, sequence, or relation, ruler over matter, and

its own supreme determinant, not excepting God (who was

himself the same sort of a mind writ large) --- while I do

believe that the modern re-conception of Materialism has

done a wholesome thing in pricking the bubble of such

conceit and restoring man and his "soul" to its "place in

nature," I nevertheless believe that to this also there is a

limit; and that the absolute sway of Matter is quite as

mischievous an error as the unrelated nature of Mind; even

that in its direct action upon personal conduct, it has the

more ill effect of the two. For if the doctrine of free-will has

raised up fanatics and persecutors, who, assuming that men

may be good under all conditions if they merely wish to be

so, have sought to persuade other men’s wills with threats,

fines, imprisonments, torture, the spike, the wheel, the axe,

the fagot, in order to make them good and save them

against their obdurate wills; if the doctrine of Spiritualism,

the soul supreme, has done this, the doctrine of

Materialistic Determinism has produced shifting, selfexcusing,

worthless, parasitical characters, who are this

now and that at some other time, and anything and nothing

upon principle. "My conditions have made me so, they cry,

and there is no more to be said; poor mirror-ghosts! how

could they help it! To be sure, the influence of such a

character rarely reaches so far as that of the principled

persecutor; but for every one of the latter, there are a

hundred of these easy, doughy characters, who will fit any

baking tin, to whom determinist self-excusing appeals; so

the balance of evil between the two doctrines is about

maintained.

What we need is a true appraisement of the power and rôle

of the Idea. I do not think I am able to give such a true

appraisement, I do not think that any one – even much

greater intellects than mine – will be able to do it for a

long time to come. But I am at least able to suggest it, to

show its necessity, to give a rude approximation of it.

And first, against the accepted formula of modern

Materialism, "Men are what circumstances make them," I

set the opposing declaration, "Circumstances are what men

make them"; and I contend that both these things are true

up to the point where the combating powers are equalized,

or one is overthrown. In other words, my conception of

mind, or character, is not that it is a powerless reflection of

a momentary condition of stuff and form, but an active

modifying agent, reacting on its environment and

transforming circumstances, sometimes slightly, sometimes

greatly, sometimes, though not often, entirely.

All over the kingdom of life, I have said, one may see

dominant ideas working, if one but trains his eyes to look

for them and recognize them. In the human world there

have been many dominant ideas. I cannot conceive that

ever, at any time, the struggle of the body before

dissolution can have been aught but agony. If the reasoning

that insecurity of conditions, the expectation of suffering,

are circumstances which make the soul of man uneasy,

shrinking, timid, what answer will you give to the challenge

of old Ragnar Lodbrog, to that triumphant death-song

hurled out, not by one cast to his death in the heat of battle,

but under slow prison torture, bitten by serpents, and yet

singing: "The goddesses of death invite me away—now end

I my song. The hours of my life are run out. I shall smile

when I die"? Nor can it be said that this is an exceptional

instance, not to be accounted for by the usual operation of

general law, for old King Lodbrog the Skalder did only

what his fathers did, and his sons and his friends and his

enemies, through long generations; they set the force of a

dominant idea, the idea of the super ascendant ego, against

the force of torture and of death, ending life as they wished

to end it, with a smile on their lips. But a few years ago, did

we not read how the helpless Kaffirs, victimized by the

English for the contumacy of the Boers, having been forced

to dig the trenches wherein for pleasant sport they were to

be shot, were lined up on the edge, and seeing death facing

them, began to chant barbaric strains of triumph, smiling as

they fell? Let us admit that such exultant defiance was

owing to ignorance, to primitive beliefs in gods and

hereafters; but let us admit also that it shows the power of

an idea dominant.

Everywhere in the shells of dead societies, as in the shells

of the sea-slime, we shall see the force of purposive action,

of intent within holding its purpose against obstacles

without.

Everywhere in the shells of dead societies, as in the shells
of the sea-slime, we shall see the force of purposive action

I think there is no one in the world who can look upon the

steadfast, far-staring face of an Egyptian carving, or read a

description of Egypt’s monuments, or gaze upon the

mummied clay of its old dead men, without feeling that the

dominant idea of that people in that age was to be enduring

and to work enduring things, with the immobility of their

great still sky upon them and the stare of the desert in them.

One must feel that whatever other ideas animated them, and

expressed themselves in their lives, this was the dominant

idea. That which was must remain, no matter at what cost,

even if it were to break the ever-lasting hills: an idea which

made the live humanity beneath it, born and nurtured in the

corns of caste, groan and writhe and gnaw its bandages, till

in the fullness of time it passed away: and still the granite

mould of it stares with empty eyes out across the world, the

stern old memory of the Thing-that-was.

I think no one can look upon the marbles wherein Greek

genius wrought the figuring of its soul without feeling an

apprehension that the things are going to leap and fly; that

in a moment one is like to be set upon by heroes with spears

in their hands, by serpents that will coil around him; to be

trodden by horses that may trample and flee; to be smitten

by these gods that have as little of the idea of stone in them

as a dragon-fly, one instant poised upon a wind-swayed

petal edge. I think no one can look upon them without

realizing at once that those figures came out of the boil of

life; they seem like rising bubbles about to float into the air,

but beneath them other bubbles rising, and others, and

others, --- there will be no end of it. When one’s eyes are

upon one group, one feels that behind one, perhaps, a figure

is tiptoeing to seize the darts of the air and hurl them on

one’s head; one must keep whirling to face the miracle that

appears about to be wrought --- stone leaping! And this

though nearly every one is minus some of the glory the old

Greek wrought into it so long ago; even the broken stumps

of arms and legs live. And the dominant idea is Activity,

and the beauty and strength of it. Change, swift, evercircling

Change! The making of things and the casting of

them away, as children cast away their toys, not interested

that these shall endure, so that they themselves realize

incessant activity. Full of creative power what matter if the

creature perished. So there was an endless procession of

changing shapes in their schools, their philosophies their

dramas, their poems, till at last it wore itself to death. And

the marvel passed away from the world. But still their

marbles live to show what manner of thoughts dominated

them.

And if we wish to, know what master-thought ruled the

lives of men when the mediæval period had had time to

ripen it, one has only at this day to stray into some quaint,

out-of-the-way English village, where a strong old towered

Church yet stands in the midst of little straw-thatched

cottages, like a brooding mother-hen surrounded by her

chickens. Everywhere the greatening of God and the

lessening of Man: the Church so looming, the home so

little. The search for the spirit, for the enduring thing (not

the poor endurance of granite which in the ages crumbles,

but the eternal), the eternal, --- and contempt for the body

which perishes, manifest in studied uncleanliness, in

mortifications of the flesh, as if the spirit should have spat

its scorn upon it.

Such was the dominant idea of that middle age which has

been too much cursed by modernists. For the men who built

the castles and the cathedrals, were men of mighty works,

though they made no books, and though their souls spread

crippled wings, because of their very endeavors to soar too

high. The spirit of voluntary subordination for the

accomplishment of a great work, which proclaimed the

aspiration of the common soul, --- that was the spirit

wrought into the cathedral stones; and it is not wholly to be

condemned.

In waking dream, when the shadow-shapes of world-ideas

swim before the vision, one sees the Middle-Age Soul an

ill-contorted, half-formless thing, with dragon wings and a

great, dark, tense face, strained sunward with blind eyes.

If now we look around us to see what idea dominates our

own civilization, I do not know that it is even as attractive

as this piteous monster of the old darkness. The relativity of

things has altered: Man has risen and God bas descended.

The modern village has better homes and less pretentious

churches. Also, the conception of dirt and disease as muchsought

afflictions, the patient suffering of which is a meet

offering to win God’s pardon, has given place to the

emphatic promulgation of cleanliness. We have Public

School nurses notifying parents that "pediculosis capitis" is

a very contagious and unpleasant disease; we have cancer

associations gathering up such cancers as have attached

themselves to impecunious persons, and carefully

experimenting with a view to cleaning them out of the

human race; we have tuberculosis societies attempting the

Herculean labor of clearing the Aegean stables of our

modern factories of the deadly bacillus, and they have got

as far as spittoons with water in them in some factories; and

others, and others, and others, which while not yet

overwhelmingly successful in their avowed purposes are

evidence sufficient that humanity no longer seeks dirt as a

means of grace. We laugh at those old superstitions and talk

much about exact experimental knowledge. We endeavor to

galvanize the Greek corpse, and pretend that we enjoy

physical culture. We dabble in many things; but the one

great real idea of our age, not copied from any other, not

pretended, not raised to life by any conjuration, is the Much

Making of Things, --- not the making of beautiful things,

not the joy of spending living energy in creative work;

rather the shameless, merciless driving and over-driving,

wasting and draining of the last lit of energy, only to

produce heaps and heaps of things, --- things ugly, things

harmful, things useless, and at the best largely unnecessary.

To what end are they produced? Mostly the producer does

not know; still less does he care. But he is possessed with

the idea that he must do it, every one is doing it, and every

year the making of things goes on more and faster; there are

mountain ranges of things made and making, and still men

go about desperately seeking to increase the list of created

things, to start fresh heaps and to add to the existing heaps.

And with what agony of body, under what stress and strain

of danger and fear of danger, with what mutilations and

maimings and lamings they struggle on, dashing themselves

out against these rocks of wealth! Verily, if the vision of the

Mediæval Soul is painful in its blind staring and pathetic

striving, grotesque in its senseless tortures, the Soul of the

Modern is most amazing with its restless, nervous eyes,

ever searching the corners of the universe, its restless,

nervous hands ever reaching and grasping for some useless

toil.

And certainly the presence of things in abundance, things

empty and things vulgar and things absurd, as well as things

convenient and useful, has produced the desire for the

possession of things, the exaltation of the possession of

things. Go through the business street of any city, where the

tilted edges of the strata of things are exposed to gaze, and

look at the faces of the people as they pass, --- not at the

hungry and smitten ones who fringe the sidewalks and plain

dolefully for alms, but at the crowd, --- and see what idea is

written on their faces. On those of the women, from the

ladies of the horse-shows to the shop girls out of the

factory, there is a sickening vanity, a consciousness of their

clothes, as of some jackdaw in borrowed feathers. Look for

the pride and glory of the free, strong, beautiful body, lithemoving

and powerful. You will not see it. You will see

mincing steps, bodies tilted to show the cut of a skirt,

simpering, smirking faces, with eyes cast about seeking

admiration for the gigantic bow of ribbon in the

overdressed hair. In the caustic words of an acquaintance,

to whom I once said, as we walked, "Look at the amount of

vanity on all these women’s faces," "No: look at the little bit

of womanhood showing out of all that vanity!"

And on the faces of the men, coarseness! Coarse desires for

coarse things, and lots of them: the stamp is set so

unmistakably that "the wayfarer though a fool need not err

therein." Even the frightful anxiety and restlessness

begotten of the creation of all this, is less distasteful than

the abominable expression of lust for the things created.

Such is the dominant idea of the western world, at least in

these our days. You may see it wherever you look,

impressed plainly on things and on men; very like if you

look in the glass, you will see it there. And if some

archaeologist of a long future shall some day unbury the

bones of our civilization, where ashes or flood shall have

entombed it, he will see this frightful idea stamped on the

factory walls he shall uncover, with their rows and rows of

square light-holes, their tons upon tons of toothed steel,

grinning out of the skull of this our life; its acres of silk and

velvet, its square miles of tinsel and shoddy. No glorious

marbles of nymphs and fawns, whose dead images are yet

so sweet that one might wish to kiss them still; no majestic

figures of winged horses, with men’s faces and lions’ paws

casting their colossal symbolism in a mighty spell forward

upon Time, as those old stone chimeras of Babylon yet do;

but meaningless iron giants, of wheels and teeth, whose

secret is forgotten, but whose business was to grind men

tip, and spit them out as housefuls of woven stuffs, bazaars

of trash, wherethrough other men might wade. The statues

he shall find will bear no trace of mythic dream or mystic

symbol; they will be statues of merchants and ironmasters

and militia-men, in tailored coats and pantaloons and proper

hats and shoes.

But the dominant idea of the age and land does not

necessarily mean the dominant idea of any single life. I

doubt not that in those long gone days, far away by the

banks of the still Nile, in the abiding shadow of the

pyramids, under the heavy burden of other men’s stolidity,

there went to and fro restless, active, rebel souls who hated

all that the ancient society stood for, and with burning

hearts sought to overthrow it.

I am sure that in the midst of all the agile Greek intellect

created, there were those who went about with downbent

eyes, caring nothing for it all, seeking some higher

revelation, willing to abandon the joys of life, so that they

drew near to some distant, unknown perfection their fellows

knew not of. I am certain that in the dark ages, when most

men prayed and cowered, and beat and bruised themselves,

and sought afflictions, like that St. Teresa who still, "Let

me suffer, or die," there were some, many, who looked on

the world as a chance jest, who despised or pitied their

ignorant comrades, and tried to compel the answers of the

universe to their questionings, by the patient, quiet

searching which came to be Modern Science. I am sure

there were hundreds thousands of them, of whom we have

never heard.

And now, to-day, though the Society about us is dominated

by Thing-Worship, and will stand so marked for all time,

that is no reason any single soul should be. Because the one

thing seemingly worth doing to my neighbor, to all my

neighbors, is to pursue dollars, that is no reason I should

pursue dollars. Because my neighbors conceive they need

an inordinate heap of carpets, furniture, clocks, china, glass,

tapestries, mirrors, clothes, jewels and servants to care for

them, and detectives to, keep an eye on the servants, judges

to try the thieves, and politicians to appoint the judges, jails

to punish the culprits, and wardens to watch in the jails, and

tax collectors to gather support for the wardens, and fees for

the tax collectors, and strong houses to hold the fees, so that

none but the guardians thereof can make off with them, ---

and therefore, to keep this host of parasites, need other men

to work for them, and make the fees; because my neighbors

want all this, is that any reason I should devote myself to

such abarren folly? and bow my neck to serve to keep up

the gaudy show?

Must we, because the Middle Age was dark and blind and

brutal, throw away the one good thing it wrought into the

fibre of Man, that the inside of a human being was worth

more than the outside? that to conceive a higher thing than

oneself and live toward that is the only way of living

worthily? The goal strived for should, and must, be a very

different one from that which led the mediæval fanatics to

despise the body and belabor it with hourly crucifixions.

But one can recognize the claims and the importance of the

body without therefore sacrificing truth, honor, simplicity,

and faith, to the vulgar gauds of body-service, whose very

decorations debase the thing they might be supposed to

exalt.

I have said before that the doctrine that men are nothing and

circumstances all, has been, and is, the bane of our modern

social reform movements.

Our youth, themselves animated by the spirit of the old

teachers who believed in the supremacy of ideas, even in

the very hour of throwing away that teaching, look with

burning eyes to the social East, and believe that wonders of

revolution are soon to be accomplished. In their enthusiasm

they foreread the gospel of Circumstances to mean that very

soon the pressure of material development must break

down the social system --- they give the rotten thing but a

few years to last; and then, they themselves shall witness

the transformation, partake in its joys. The few years pass

away and nothing happens; enthusiasm cools. Behold these

same idealists then, successful business men, professionals,

property owners, money leaders, creeping into the social

ranks they once despised, pitifully, contemptibly, at the

skirts of some impecunious personage to whom they have

lent money, or done some professional service gratis;

behold them lying, cheating, tricking, flattering, buying and

selling themselves for any frippery, any cheap little

pretense. The Dominant Social Idea has seized them, their

lives are swallowed up in it; and when you ask the reason

why, they tell you that Circumstances compelled them so to

do. If you quote their lies to them, they smile with calm

complacency, assure you that when Circumstances demand

lies, lies are a great deal better than truth; that tricks are

sometimes more effective than honest dealing; that

flattering and duping do not matter, if the end to be attained

is desirable; and that under existing "Circumstances" life

isn’t possible without all this; that it is going to be possible

whenever Circumstances have made truth-telling easier

than lying, but till then a man must look out for himself, by

all means. And so the cancer goes on rotting away the

moral fibre, and the man becomes a lump, a squash, a piece

of slippery slime taking all shapes and losing all shapes,

according to what particular hole or corner he wishes to

glide into, --- a disgusting embodiment of the moral

bankruptcy begotten by Thing-Worship.

Had he been dominated by a less material conception of

life, had his will not been rotted by the intellectual

reasoning of it out of its existence, by its acceptance of its

own nothingness, the unselfish aspirations of his earlier

years would have grown and strengthened by exercise and

habit; and his protest against the time might have been

enduringly written, and to some purpose.

Will it be said that the Pilgrim fathers did not hew, out of

the New England ice and granite, the idea which gathered

them together out of their scattered and obscure English

villages, and drove them in their frail ships aver the Atlantic

in midwinter, to cut their way against all opposing forces?

Were they not common men, subject to the operation of

common law? Will it be said that Circumstances aided

them? When death, disease, hunger, and cold had done their

worst, not one of those remaining was willing by an easy lie

to return to material comfort and the possibility of long

days.

Had our modern social revolutionists the vigorous and

undaunted conception of their own powers that these had,

our social movements would not be such pitiful abortions, -

— core-rotten even before the outward flecks appear.

"Give a labor leader a political job, and the system becomes

all right," laugh our enemies; and they point mockingly to

Terence Powderly acid his like; and they quote John Burns,

who as soon as he went into Parliament declared: "The time

of the agitator is past; the time of the legislator has come."

"Let an Anarchist marry an heiress, and the country is safe,"

they sneer: --- and they have the right to sneer. But would

they have that right, could they have it, if our lives were not

in the first instance dominated by more insistent desires

than those we would fain have others think we hold most

dear?

It is the old story: "Aim at the stars, and you may hit the top

of the gatepost; but aim at the ground and you will hit the

ground.

It is not to be supposed that any one will attain to the full

realization of what he purposes, even when those purposes

do not involve united action with others; he will fall short;

he will in some measure be overcome by contending or

inert opposition. But something he will attain, if he

continues to aim high.

What, then, would I have? you ask. I would have men

invest themselves with the dignity of an aim higher than the

chase for wealth; choose a thing to do in life outside of the

making of things, and keep it in mind, --- not for a day, nor

a year, but for a life-time. And then keep faith with

themselves! Not be a light-o’-love, to-day professing this

and to-morrow that, and easily reading oneself out of both

whenever it becomes convenient; not advocating a thing today

and to-morrow kissing its enemies’ sleeve, with that

weak, coward cry in the mouth, "Circumstances make me."

Take a good look into yourself, and if you love Things and

the power and the plenitude of Things better than you love

your own dignity, human dignity, Oh, say so, say so! Say it

to yourself, and abide by it. But do not blow hot and cold in

one breath. Do not try to be a social reformer and a

respected possessor of Things at the same time. Do not

preach the straight and narrow way while going joyously

upon the wide one. Preach the wide one, or do not preach at

all; but do not fool yourself by saying you would like to

help usher in a free society, but you cannot sacrifice an

armchair for it. Say honestly, "I love arm-chairs better than

free men, and pursue them because I choose; not because

circumstances make me. I love hats, large, large hats, with

many feathers and great bows; and I would rather have

those hats than trouble myself about social dreams that will

never be accomplished in my day. The world worships hats,

and I wish to worship with them."

But if you choose the liberty and pride and strength of the

single soul, and the free fraternization of men, as the

purpose which your life is to make manifest then do not sell

it for tinsel. Think that your soul is strong and will hold its

way; and slowly, through bitter struggle perhaps the

strength will grow. And the foregoing of possessions for

which others barter the last possibility of freedom will

become easy.

At the end of life you may close your eyes saying: "I have

not been dominated by the Dominant Idea of my Age; I

have chosen mine own allegiance, and served it. I have

proved by a lifetime that there is that in man which saves

him from the absolute tyranny of Circumstance, which in

the end conquers and remoulds Circumstance, the immortal

fire of Individual Will, which is the salvation of the

Future."

Let us have Men, Men who will say a word to their souls

and keep it --- keep it not when it is easy, but keep it when

it is hard --- keep it when the storm roars and there is a

white-streaked sky and blue thunder before, and one’s eyes

are blinded and one’s ears deafened with the war of

opposing things; and keep it under the long leaden sky and

the gray dreariness that never lifts. Hold unto the last: that

is what it means to have a Dominant Idea, which

Circumstance cannot break. And such men make and

unmake Circumstance.

Voltairine de Cleyre