The Bribery of Society

Wilshire’s Magazine, Dec. 1902, pp. 34-36

Benjamin De Casseres

WE HAVE a coarse, commonplace definition of bribery. We limit it to the seen, the actual, the tangible. We do not get beyond dollars and cents, check-book and share, cigars and champagne. When we are told that an elector has been bribed to stay away from the polls we think of the money involved; when we are informed that a legislator has sold his vote we connote stock certificates, ready money. This we call bribery, and we condemn it not so much because it is bribery, but because the coarseness, the obviousness of the transaction repels us.

But bribery has no such limitation. It is not confined to certain classes of men; it is known of all men. And few there be who are not bribed a thousand times in the month. Some men, indeed, sell themselves each minute; they huckster their way through life, and by lip repentance on their death-beds attempt to bribe their way into heaven. For bribery is the giving of one’s self for a dole; selling the soul for a pittance; bartering the will for a toy.

Have you an original thought? Beware of the Briber. Have you resolved with all the native forces of your soul to do this or that? Beware of the Briber. Have you in mind some great enterprise? Beware of the Briber. Does your course run counter to the prejudices of your environment? Beware of the Briber. He stands with flaming sword at every gate you knock upon, and his spawn are in ambuscade along the highways of all right endeavor.

Who is this puissant lord? The sum of the forces that surround you. Nature, Man, Society, are the Bribers. In their hands adamantine purpose runs to fluid wastes. From the cradle to the grave these universal tempters importune you. Gentle in mien, wearing the livery of heaven, with power, place, pelf in their hands, they beckon to you from a thousand eminences; they will lull you to sleep, and while you sleep they will pour into the porches of your ear a deadly poison that shall leave you but a poor, wandering ghost of your former self.

The child, newly awakened to a world of beauty and incense, with godlike inquiry in its eyes and the starling question on its lips, is bribed to silence with a lie. It is urged to accept the old and to doubt the divinity of its own individuality. “Mother, who made the moon?” “God, my child.” “And, mother, who made God?” “You must not ask such silly questions, my son. Now, here is some candy; run away and eat it, like a good little boy.” And the sublime question, proceeding [35] from the exquisite innocence of childhood, receives in answer a sweet-meat as the price of its silence. And so with youth. He sells his soul for sweet-meats. If there be aught in him superior to his companions, he is bribed to keep to the common level. He is assaulted gayly from all sides; pelted with roses, and enmeshed in a sweet tangle of seductive sights and sounds. The dream of an enlarged and mighty self soon fades into the light of common day. He stands with much in his hands, but nothing in his heart. The figure of mighty Thor that shone in the heavens for him has shrunk to manikin size.

Popularity, good-fellowship, ease, contentment, next-door reputation are the bribes for which the man sells the integrity of his own soul. He will scatter himself to the winds. His nights and days he will slash into fragments. He will pulverize his ego to such a fineness that a man is lost in a maze of atoms that have no relation to a centre. His mind will become a series of pigeon-holes where everybody will keep their opinions, and you shall find his religion and politics in his friends’ keeping. His soul is like a royal mansion gone to seed, where the hoot of the owl and the whirr of the bat forever resound. He will finally lose himself entirely, and that when he believes he has himself most; and in the end, when everybody has used him, he will be flung to the rubbish heap. Or, peradventure, he may rise to the dignity of being a “good fellow”—the last titular triumph of all failures.

Nature’s bribes are many. She loves you so, she is such an all-solicitous mother, that she will not have you stray far from the ancestral type without visiting you with penalties. Her baying bloodhounds, Conformity and Mediocrity, are ever on the traces of Originality. She loves the avatar better than the genius. If you vary from the type, get thee to a wilderness. She will have no such thing as originality. If you persist in being yourself, and match the god in you against the devil, she will make you pay for it. Stay close at home. Hug the shore. Stick to the shallows. The Greeks in Nemesis gave us a tremendous truth. Nemesis is vengeance; and “Vengeance is mine,” saith Nature. And her vengeances are many. If you would test her, try the untrodden path. If you are the first that ever burst into some silent sea you must dice with Life-in-Death. She will bribe you to stay in your proper place. Mental ease, peace, and that supreme satisfaction which is the fruit of a fatty optimism are some of her offerings. Stay down in the valleys and keep warm beside some humble hearth. Or, would you die like Brand on the glittering ice-plains of mental isolation?

Only men with whom you never come in contact can help you. Seek the clairvoyant wise and shun the mob. All men are your enemies; you must ceaselessly confront their insinuations and inuendoes if you would save yourself to yourself. In the human environment subornation is to be encountered each minute. Fear men when they come with gifts. They mean no better than the Greeks of old. Your friends are often your worst enemies—disguised pampers and panders. Keep them at arm’s length, or shun them altogether unless your soul is mortised and tenoned in granite. If you want advice go to Buddha, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer or Emerson. Don’t take the miserable stuff offered to you by Piecemeal, Compromise and To-morrow—all close friends of yours; bribers, [36] traffickers, harlots all. This Proteus Man assumes a thousand shapes. But they are all bent on weaning you from yourself. They are the worms that gnaw unremittingly into the fabric of your soul. And on a day you shall awake to find great gaps in yourself. You have become a “looped and windowed raggedness.” The mighty crowds that sweep our pavements are all aiming at your destruction. Man is carnivorous. The many live on the one. And you are one. This massy Man will cajole you, wheedle you, force you, if necessary, from your orbit, and make a sad mess of you. He is strong who can dwell ‘mid multitudes and not sell himself.

Organized Society is the greatest of all bribers. Neither Nature nor Man offers so much for your soul as this abstraction, this will-o’-the-wisp, this blotch on time. Her lobbyists are everywhere. They will pester you at every turn in life. With every breath you take you suck in her poisonous emanations. Your every though is tainted with her importunities. She catches you up at every corner and trips you on every by-path. And remain dumb! Keep your tongue; never hint at her transgressions, her iniquities, her ceaseless plots against your soul. You may buy all sorts of golden opinions from her. If you are in the pulpit and have obeyed her mandates you shall have lucrative “calls.” If you sit in the editorial sanctum and gild her splendid sins you shall have the rewards which a large advertising patronage brings. If you take to the hustings and pat her on the back, putting yourself away, you shall have clacquers. Bribery! Does not she present you ready-made with any system of government which you may want: Democracy, monarchy (limited or absolute), oligarchy, or simple communism? Any system but your own; any system—but that which has the sanction and authority of your own soul. You shall have anything except what you have got. Like Nature, she is at war with Originality. Dare to walk among men and live a life whose laws are self-evolved? Society will sneer, ostracize, bludgeon you into submission. And if these fail, she will buy you. She will take you up into the mountain and show you a land flowing with milk and honey. And few that go up come down. Society stands at your deathbed, the same meretricious publicity; her voice has grown strident, but you have become familiar with it. You have bought much at her booth. Buy, buy, even here at this sacred hour. Buy your way into the New Jerusalem. Buy your way to God’s throne. Buy your way to His very lap. Buy a repentance. Buy a seat in the heavenly choir.

And we bribe ourselves. We bribe our consciences with excuses; we bribe imperative duties to sleep with a pleasant hour; we bribe sorrows with diversions; we bribe unpleasant thoughts with intoxications; we bribe truth with falsehood. We hate to face anything except the Bribers.

Life is all compromise and bribery. The greatest do not escape. “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” was compromise. And from Calvary! Render unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s, and unto me the things which are mine. But who shall judge of the things which are Cæsar’s and the things which are mine? Each demands all.