Moving the Mountain, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Chapter 11

DR. BORDERSON, it seemed, held the chair in Ethics at the University, I knew a Borderson once and was very fond of him. Poor Frank! If he was alive he would have more likely reached a prison or a hospital than a professorship. Yet he was brilliant enough. We were great friends in college, and before; let me see—thirty-five years ago. But he was expelled for improper conduct, and went from bad to worse. The last I had heard of him was in a criminal case—but he had run away and disappeared. I well remembered the grief and shame it was to me at the time to see such a promising young life ruined and lost so early.

Thinking of this, I was shown into the study of the great teacher of ethics, and as I shook hands I met the keen brown eyes of—Frank Borderson. He had both my hands and shook them warmly.

“Well, John! It is good to see you again. How well you look; how little you have changed! It’s a good world you’ve come back to, isn’t it?”

“You are the most astonishing thing I’ve seen so far,” I replied. “Do you really mean it? Are you—a Professor of Ethics?”

“When I used to be a God-forsaken rascal, eh? Yes, it’s really so. I've taught Ethics for twenty years, and gradually pushed along to this position. And I was a good deal farther off than Tibet, old man.”

I was tremendously glad to see him. It was more like a touch of the old life than anything I had yet found—except Nellie, of course. We spoke for some time of those years of boyhood; of the good times we had had together; of our common friends.

He kept me to dinner; introduced me to his wife, a woman with a rather sad, sweet face, which seemed to bear marks of deep experience; and we settled down for an evening’s talk.

“I think you have come to the right person, John; not only because of my special studies, but because of my special line of growth. If I can tell you what changed me, so quickly and so wholly, you won’t be much puzzled about the others, eh?”

I fully agreed with him. The boy I knew was clever enough to dismiss all theology, to juggle with philosophy and pick ethics to pieces; but his best friends had been reluctantly compelled to admit that he had “no moral character.” He had, to my knowledge, committed a number of unquestionable “sins,” and by hearsay I knew of vices and crimes that followed. And he was Dr. Borderson!

“Ill take myself as a sample, Whitman fashion,” said he. “There I was when you knew me—conceited, ignorant, clever, self-indulgent, weak, sensual, dishonest. After I was turned out of college I broke a good many laws and nearly all the commandments. What was worse, in one way, was that my ‘wages’ were being paid me in disease—abominable disease. Also I had two drug habits—alcohol and cocaine. Will you take me as a sample?”

I looked at him. He had not the perfect health I saw so much of in the younger people; but he seemed in no way an invalid, much less a drug victim. His eyes were clear and bright, his complexion good, his hand steady, his manner assured and calm.

“Frank,” said I, “you beat anything I’ve seen yet. You stand absolutely to my mind as an illustration of ‘Before Taking’ and ‘After Taking.’ Now in the name of reason tell me what it was you Took!”

“I took a new grip on Life—that’s the whole answer. But you want to know the steps, and I’ll tell you. The new stage of ethical perception we are in now—or, as you would probably say, this new religion—presents itself to me in this way:

“The business of the universe about us consists in the Transmission of Energy. Some of it is temporarily and partially arrested in material compositions; some is more actively expressed in vegetable and animal form; this stage of expression we call Life. We ourselves, the human animals, were specially adapted for high efficiency in storing and transmitting this energy; and so were able to enter into a combination still more efficient; that is, into social relations. Humanity, man in social relation, is the best expression of the Energy that we know. This Energy is what the human mind has been conscious of ever since it was conscious at all; and calls God. The relation between this God and this Humanity is in reality a very simple one. In common with all other life forms, the human being must express itself in normal functioning. Because of its special faculty of consciousness, this human engine can feel, see, think, about the power within it; and can use it more fully and wisely. All it has to learn is the right expression of its degree of life-force, of Social Energy.” He beamed at me. “I think it’s about all there, John.”

“You may be a very good Professor of Ethics for these new-made minds, but you don’t reach the old kind—not a little bit. To my mind you haven’t said anything—yet.”

He seemed a little disappointed, but took it mildly. “Perhaps I am a little out of touch. Wait a moment—let me go back and try to take up the old attitude.”

He leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes, I saw an expression of pain slowly grow and deepen on his face; and suddenly realized what he was doing.

“Oh, never mind, Frank; don’t do it; don’t try, I’ll catch on somehow.”

He seemed not to hear me; but dropped his face in his hands. When he raised it it was clear again. “Now I can make things clearer perhaps,” he said. “We had in our minds thirty years ago a strange hodge-podge of old and new ideas. What was called God was still largely patterned after the old tribal deity of the Hebrews. Our ideas of ‘Sin’ were still mostly of the nature of disobedience—wrong only because we were told not to do it. Sin as a personal offence against Somebody, and Somebody very much offended; that was it. We were beginning to see something of Social values, too, but not clearly. Our progress was in what we called ‘The natural sciences’; and we did not think with the part of our minds wherein we stored religion. Yet there was very great activity and progress in religious thought; the whole field was in motion; the new churches widening and growing in every direction; the older ones holding on like grim death, trying not to change, and changing in spite of themselves; and Ethics being taught indeed, but with no satisfying basis. That’s the kind of atmosphere you and I grew up in, John. Now here was I, an ill-assorted team of impulses and characteristics, prejudiced against religion, ignorant of real ethics, and generally going to the devil—as we used to call it I You know how far down I went—or something of it.”

“Don’t speak of it, Frank!” I said. “That was long ago; forget it, old man!” But he turned toward me a smile of triumph.

“Forget it! I wouldn’t forget one step of it if I could! Why, John, it’s because of my intimate knowledge of these down-going steps that I can help other people up them!”

“You looked decidedly miserable just now, all the same, when you were thinking them over.”

“Oh, bless you, John, I wasn’t thinking of myself at all! I was thinking of the awful state of mind the world was in, and how it suffered! Of all the horror and misery and shame; all that misplaced, unnecessary cruelty we called punishment; the Dark Ages we were still in, in spite of all we had to boast of. However, this new perception came.”

I interrupted him.

“What came? Who came? Did you have a new revelation? Who did it? What do you call it? Nobody seems to be able to give me definite information.”

He smiled broadly. “You’re a beautiful proof of the kind of mental jumble I spoke of. Knowledge of evolution did not come by a revelation, did it? Or did any one man, or two, give it to us? Darwin and Wallace were not the only minds that helped to see and express that great idea; and many more had to spread it. These great truths break into the world-mind through various individuals, and coalesce so that we cannot dis connect them. We have had many writers, preachers, lecturers, who discoursed and explained; this new precept as to the relation between man and God came with such a general sweep that no one even tries to give personal credit for it. These things are not personal—they are world-percepts.”

“But every religion has had its Founder, hasn’t it?”

I don’t call it a religion, my dear fellow! It’s a science, like any other science. Ethics is The Science of Human Relation. It is called Applied Sociology—that’s all.”

“How does a thing like that touch one, personally?” I asked.

“How does any science touch one personally? One studies a science, one teaches a science, one uses a science. That’s the point—the use of it. Our old scheme of religion was a thing to ‘believe,’ or ‘deny’; it was a sort of shibboleth, a test question one had to pass examination in to get good marks! What I’m telling you about is a general recognition of right behavior, and a general grasp of the necessary power.”

“You leave out entirely the emotional side of religion.”

“Do I? I did not intend to. You see, we do not distinguish religion from life now, and are apt to forget old terms. You are thinking, I suppose, of the love of God, and man, which we used to preach. We practice it now.

“That Energy I spoke of, when perceived by us, is called Love. Love, the real thing we had in mind when we said ‘God is Love,’ is beneficent energy. It is the impulse of service, the desire to do, to help, to make, to benefit. That is the ‘love’ we were told to bestow on one another. Now we do.”

“Yes; but what made you do it? What keeps you up to it?”

“Just nature, John. It is human nature. We used to believe otherwise.” He was quiet for a while.

“One of these new doctors got hold of me, when I was about as near the bottom as one can go and get back. Not a priest with a formula, nor a reformer with an exhortation; but a real physician, a soul-doctor, with a passionate enthusiasm for an interesting case. That’s what I was, John; not a lost soul; not even a ‘sinner’—just ‘a case.’ Have you heard about these moral sanitariums?”

“Yes—but not definitely.”

“Well, as soon as this view of things took hold, they began to want to isolate bad cases, and cure them if they could. And they cured me.”

“How, Frank—how? What did they tell you that you didn’t know before? What did they do to you?”

“Sane, strong, intelligent minds put themselves in connection with mine, John, and shared their strength with me. I was matters to feel that my individual failure was no great matter, but that my social duty wast that the whole of my dirty past was as nothing to all our splendid future, that whatever I had done was merely to be forgotten—the sooner the better, and that all life was open before me—all human life; endless, beautiful, profoundly interesting—the game was on, and I was in it.

“John—I wish I could make you feel it. It was as if we had all along had inside us an enormous reservoir of love, human love, that had somehow been held in and soured! This new arrangement of our minds let it out—to our limitless relief and joy. No ‘sin’—think of that I Just let it sink in. No such thing as sin. . . . We had, collectively and privately, made mistakes, and done the wrong thing, often. What of it? Of course we had. A growing race grew that way.

“Now we are wiser and need not keep on going wrong. We had learned that life was far easier, pleasanter, more richly satisfying when followed on these new lines—and the new lines were not hard to learn. Love was the natural element of social life. Love meant service, service meant doing one’s special work well, and doing it for the persons served—of course!

“All our mistakes lay in our belated Individualism. You cannot predicate Ethics of individuals; you cannot fulfill any religion as individuals. My fellow creatures took hold of me, you see. That power that was being used so extensively for physical healing in our young days had become a matter of common knowledge—and use.”

“How many of these—moral hygienists—did you have?”

“Scores, hundreds, thousands—we all help one another now. If a person is tired and blue and has lost his grip, if he can’t rectify it by change of diet and change of scene, he goes to a moral hygienist, as you rightly call it, and gets help. I do a lot of that sort of work.”

I meditated awhile, and again shook my head. “I’m afraid it’s no use. I can’t make it seem credible. I hear what you say and I see what you’ve done—but I do not get any clear understanding of the process. With people as they were, with all those case-hardened old sinners, all the crass ignorance, the stupidity, the sodden prejudice, the apathy, the selfishness—to make a world like that see reason—in thirty years!—No—I don’t get it.”

“You are wrong in your premises, John. Human nature is, and was, just as good as the rest of nature. Two things kept us back—wrong conditions, and wrong ideas; we y; have changed both. I think you forget the ’ sweeping advance in material conditions and its effect on character. What made the well-bred, well-educated, well-meaning, pleasant people we used to know? Good conditions, for them and their ancestors. There were just as pleasant people among the poor and among their millions of children; they had every capacity for noble growth—given the chance. It took no wholesale change of heart to make people want shorter hours, better pay, better housing, food, clothes, amusements. As soon as the shameful pressure of poverty was taken off humanity it rose like a freed spring. Humanity’s all right.” I “There were some things all wrong,” I replied, “that I know. You could not obliterate hereditary disease in ten—or thirty years. You couldn’t make clean women of hundreds of thousands of prostitutes. You couldn’t turn an invalid tramp into a healthy gentleman.”

He stopped me. “We could do better than that,” he said, “and we have. I begin to see your central difficulty, John; the difficulty that used to hold us all. You are looking at life as a personal affair—a matter of personal despair or salvation.”

“Of course, what else is it?”

“What else! Why, that is no part of human life! Human life is social, John, collectively, common, or it isn’t human life at all. Hereditary disease looks pretty hopeless when you see one generation or two or three so cursed. But when you realize how swiftly the stream of human life can be cleansed of it, you take a fresh hold. The percentage of hereditary disease has sunk by more than half in thirty years, John, and at its present rate of decrease will be gone, clean gone, in another twenty. Remember that every case is known, and that they are either prevented from transmitting the inheritance, isolated, or voluntarily living single. Diseases from bad conditions we no longer endure, nor diseases from ignorance, those from bacilli we are able to resist or cure; disease was never a permanent thing—only an accident. As for the prostitutes—we thought them ‘ruined’ because they were no longer suitable for our demands in marriage. As if that was everything! I tell you we opened a way out for them!”


“Namely all the rest of life! Sex-life isn’t everything, John. Not fit to be a mother, we said to them; never mind—there is everything else in the world to be. You may remember, my friend, that thousands of men, as vicious as any prostitutes, and often as diseased, continued to live, to work, and to enjoy. Why shouldn’t the women? You haven’t ruined your lives, we said to them; only one part. It’s a loss, a great loss, but never mind, the whole range of human life remains open to you, the great moving world of service and growth and happiness. If you’re sick, you’re sick—we’ll cure it if possible. If not, you’ll die—never mind, we all die—that’s nothing.”

“Does your new religion call death nothing?”

“Certainly. The fuss we made about death was wholly owing to the old religions; the post-mortem religions, their whole basis was death.”

“Hold on a bit. Do you mean to tell me the people aren’t afraid of death any more?”

“Not a bit. Why should they be? Every living thing dies; that’s part of the living. We do not hide it from children now, we teach it to them.”

“Teach death—to children! How horrible!”

“Did you see or hear anything horrible in your educational excursions, John? I know you didn’t. No, they learn it naturally; in their gardens; in their autumn and winter songs; in their familiarity with insects and animals. Our children learn life, death, and immortality, from silk-worms; and, then only incidentally. The silk is what they are studying.

“It takes a great many silk-worms to make silk, generations of them. They see them horn, live and die, as incidents in silk culture. So we show them how people are horn, live and die, in the making of human history. The idea is worked into our new educational literature—and all our literature for that matter. We see human life as a continuous whole now. People are only temporary parts of it. Dying isn’t any more trouble than being born.

“People feared death, originally, because it hurt; being chased and eaten was not pleasant. But natural dying does not hurt. Then they were made to fear it by the hell-school of religions. All that is gone by. Our religion rests on life.”

“The life of this world or the life eternal?”

“The eternal life of this world, John. We have no quarrel with anyone’s belief as to what may happen after death, that is a free field; but the glory and power of our religion is that it rests with assurance on common knowledge of the beautiful facts of life. Here is Humanity, a continuing stream of life. Its line of advance is clear. That which makes Humanity stronger, wiser and happier is evidently what is right for it to do. We do teach it to all our children.”

“And they do it?”

“Of course they do it. Why shouldn’t they?”

“But our evil tendencies ”

“We don’t have evil tendencies, John—and never did. We have earlier and later tendencies; and it is perfectly possible to show the child which is which.”

“But surely it is easier to follow the lower impulses than the higher; easier to give way than to strive.”

“There’s the old misconception, John, that Striving idea.’ We assumed that it was ‘natural’ to be ‘bad’ and ‘unnatural’ to be ‘good’—that we had to make special efforts, painful and laborious, to become better. We had not seen, thirty years ago, that social evolution is as ‘natural’ as the evolution of the horse from the eohippus. If it was easier to be an eohippus than a horse why did the thing change?

“As to that army of ‘fallen women 5 you are so anxious about, they just got up again, that’s all, got up and went on. They had only fallen from one position; there was plenty of room left to stand and walk. Why they were not a speck on society compared to the ‘fallen men.’ Two hundred thousand prostitutes in the city of New York—well? How many patrons? A million, at the least. They kept on doing business, and enjoying life. I tell you, John, all the unnecessary evils of condition in the old days, were as nothing to the unnecessary evils of our foolish ideas! And ideas can be changed in the twinkling of an eye!

“As to your hoboes and bums, that invalid tramp you instanced—I can settle your mind on that point. I was an invalid tramp, John; a drunkard, a cocaine fiend, a criminal, sick, desperate, as bad as they make them.”

“Which brings us back to that ‘moral sanitarium’ I suppose?”

“Yes. I strayed away from it. I keep forgetting my own case. But it is an excellent one for illustration. I was taken hold of with the strong hand, and given a course of double treatment, deep and thorough. By double treatment I mean physical and mental at once; such a complete overhauling and wise care as enabled my exhausted vitality slowly to reassert itself, and at the same time such strong tender cheerful companionship, such well-devised entertainment, such interesting, irresistible instruction—Why, John—put a tramp into Paradise, and there’s some hope of him.”

I was about to say that tramps did not deserve Paradise, but as I remembered what this man had been, and saw what he was now, I refrained.

He read my mind at once.

“It’s not a question of desert, John. We no longer deal in terms of personal reward or punishment. If I have a bad finger or a bad tooth I save it if I can; not because it deserves it, but because I need it. People who used to be called sinners are now seen to be diseased members of society, and society turns all its regenerative forces on at once. We never used to dream of that flood of power we had at hand—the Regenerative Forces of Society!”

He sat smiling, his fine eyes full of light. “Sometimes we had to amputate,” he continued, “especially at first. It is very seldom necessary now.”

“You mean you killed the worst people?”

“We killed many hopeless degenerates, insane, idiots, and real perverts, after trying our best powers of cure. But it is really astonishing to see how much can be done with what we used to call criminals, merely by first-class physical treatment. I can remember how strange it seemed to me, having elaborate baths, massage, electric stimulus, perfect food, clean comfortable beds, beautiful clothes, books, music, congenial company, and wonderful instruction. It was very confusing. It went far to rearrange all my ideas.”

“If you treat—social invalids—like that, I should think they would ‘lie down;’ just to remain in hospital forever. Or go out and be bad in order to get back again.”

“Oh, no,” he said. “A healthy man can’t lie around and do nothing very long. Also it is good outside too, remember. Life is good, pleasant, easy. Why on earth should a man want to prowl around at night and steal when he can have all he wants, with less effort, in the daytime? Happy people do not become criminals.

“But I can tell you what treatment like that does to one. It gives a man a new view of human life, of what it is he belongs to. A sense of pride in our common accomplishment, of gratitude for the pleasure he receives, of a natural desire to contribute something. I took this new ethics—it satisfied me, it’s reasonable, it’s necessary. We make it our basic study now, in all the schools. You must have noticed that?”

“Yes, I had noticed it, as I looked back. But they don’t call it that,” I said.

“No, they don’t call it anything to the children. It is just life, the rules of decent behavior.”

We sat silent awhile after this. Things were clearing up a little in my mind.

“A sort of crystallization of chaotic progressive thought into clear diamonds of usable truth—is that about what happened?” I said.

“That’s exactly it,”

“And a general refutation and clearing out of—of—”

“Of a lot of things we deeply believed—that were not so! That is what was the matter with us, John. Our minds were full of what Mrs. Eddy christened error. I wish I could make you feel what a sunrise it was to the world when we left off believing lies and learned the facts.”

“Can you, in a few words, outline a little of your new ‘Ethics’ to the lay mind?”

“Easily. It is all ‘lay’ enough. We don’t make a separate profession of religion, or a separate science of ethics. Ethics is social hygiene—it teaches how humanity must live in order to be well and strong. We show the child the patent facts of social relation, how all our daily life, our accumulated wealth and beauty and continuing power, rests on common action, on what people do together. Everything about him teaches that. Then we show him the reasons why such and such actions are wrong, what the results are; how to avoid wrong lines of action and adopt right ones. It’s no more difficult than teaching any other game, and far more interesting.”

I suppose I looked unconvinced, for he added, “Remember we have nature on our side. It is natural for a social animal to develop social instincts; any personal desire which works against the social good is clearly a survival of a lower presocial period; wrong, in that it is out of place. What we used to call criminals were relics of the past. By artificially maintaining low conditions, such as poverty, individual wealth, we bred low-grade types. We do not breed them any more.”

Again we sat silent. I was nursing my knee and sat looking into the fire; the soft shimmering play of rosy light and warmth with which electricity now gave jewels to our rooms.

He followed my eyes.

“That clean, safe, beautiful power was always here, John—but we had not learned of it. The power of wind and water and steam were here—before we learned to use them. All this splendid power of human life was here—only we did not know it.”

After that talk with Frank Borderson I felt a little clearer in my mind about what had taken place. I saw a good deal of him, and he introduced me to others who were in his line of work. Also I got to know his wife pretty well. She was not so great an authority on ethics as he; but an excellent teacher, widely useful.

One day I said something to her about her lovely spirit, and what she must have been to him—such an uplifting influence.

She laughed outright.

“Ill have to tell you the facts, Mr. Robertson, as part of your instruction. So far from my uplifting him, he picked me out of the gutter, literally, dead drunk in the gutter, the lowest kind of wreck. He made me over. He gave me—Life.”

Her eyes shone.

“We work together,” she added cheerfully.

They did work together, and evidently knew much happiness. I noted a sort of deep close understanding between them, as in those who have been through the wars in company,

I found Nellie knew about them. “Yes, indeed,” she said. “They are devoted to each other, and most united in their work. He was just beginning to try to work, after his own rebuilding; but feeling pretty lonesome. He felt that he had no chance of any personal life, you see, and there were times hen he missed it badly. He had no right to marry, of course; that is, with a well woman. And then he found this broken lily—and mended it. There can’t be any children, but there is great happiness, you can see that.”

“And they are—received?”

“Received?—Oh, I remember. You mean they are invited to dinners and parties. Why, yes.”

“Not among the best people, surely?”

“Precisely that, the very best; people who appreciate their wonderful lives.”

“Tell me this, Sister; what happened to the Four Hundred—the F. F. V’s—and the rest of the aristocracy?”

“The same thing that happened to all of us. They were only people, you see. Their atrophied social consciousness was electrified with the new thoughts and feelings. They woke up, too, most of them. Some just died out harmlessly. They were only by-products.”

I consulted a rather reactionary old professor of Sociology, Morris Banks; one who had been teaching Political Economy in my youth, and who ought to be able to remember things. I asked him if he would be so good as to show me the dark side of this shield.

“Surely there must have been opposition, misunderstanding, the usual difficulties of new adjustments,” I said. “You remember the first years of change—I wish you would give me a clear account of it.”

The old man considered awhile: “Take any one state, any city, or country locality, and study back a little,” he said, “and you find the story is about the same. There was opposition and dissent, of course, but it decreased very rapidly. You see the improvements at first introduced were such universal benefits that there could not be any serious complaint.

“By the time we had universal suffrage the women were more than ready for it, full of working plans to carry out, and rich by the experience of the first trials.

“By the time Socialism was generally adopted we had case after case of proven good in Socialistic methods; and also the instructive background of some failures.”

“But the big men who ran the country to suit themselves in my time, they didn’t give up without a struggle surely? You must have had some fighting,” I said.

He smiled in cheerful reminiscence. “We had a good deal of noise, if that’s what you mean. But there’s no fighting to be done, with soldiers, if the soldiers won’t fight.

Our workingmen declined to shoot or to be shot any longer, and left the big capitalists to see what they could do alone.”

“But they had the capital?”

“Not all of it. The revenues of the cities and of the United States Government are pretty considerable, especially when you save the seventy per cent, we used to spend on wars past and possible; and the ten or twenty-more that went in waste and graft. With a Socialist State private Capital has no grip!”

“Did you confiscate it?”

“Did not have to. The people who were worth anything, swung into line and went to work like other people. Those that weren’t were just let alone. Nobody has any respect for them now.”

“You achieved Socialism without blood-shed?”

“We did. It did not happen all at once, you see; just spread and spread and proved its usefulness.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54