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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
“Pharisaism of Reform”
By George William Curtis (1824–1892)
 
From ‘Orations and Addresses’

NO American, it seems to me, is so unworthy the name as he who attempts to extenuate or defend any national abuse, who denies or tries to hide it, or who derides as pessimists and Pharisees those who indignantly disown it and raise the cry of reform. If a man proposes the redress of any public wrong, he is asked severely whether he considers himself so much wiser and better than other men, that he must disturb the existing order and pose as a saint. If he denounces an evil, he is exhorted to beware of spiritual pride. If he points out a dangerous public tendency or censures the action of a party, he is advised to cultivate good-humor, to look on the bright side, to remember that the world is a very good world, at least the best going, and very much better than it was a hundred years ago.  1
  Undoubtedly it is; but would it have been better if everybody had then insisted that it was the best of all possible worlds, and that we must not despond if sometimes a cloud gathered in the sky, or a Benedict Arnold appeared in the patriot army, or even a Judas Iscariot among the chosen twelve? Christ, I think, did not doubt the beloved disciple nor the coming of his kingdom, although he knew and said that the betrayer sat with him at the table. I believe we do not read that Washington either thought it wiser that Arnold’s treachery should be denied or belittled, or that he or any other patriot despaired although the treason was so grave. Julius Cæsar or Marlborough or Frederick would hardly be called a great general if he had rebuked the soldier who reported that the lines were beginning to break. When the sea is pouring into the ship through an open seam, everybody is aware of it. But then it is too late. It is the watch who reports the first starting of the seam who saves the ship.  2
  It is an ill sign when public men find in exposure and denunciation of public abuses evidence of the pharisaic disposition and a tendency in the critic to think himself holier than other men. Was Martin Luther, cheerfully defending his faith against the princes of Christendom, a Pharisee? Were the English Puritans, iconoclasts in Church and State but saviors of liberty, pessimists? Were Patrick Henry demanding liberty or death, and Wendell Phillips in the night of slavery murmuring the music of the morning, birds of ill omen? Was Abraham Lincoln saying of the American Union, “A house divided with itself cannot stand,” assuming to be holier than other Americans? To win a cheap cheer, I have known even intelligent men to sneer at the scholar in politics. But in a republic founded upon the common school, such a sneer seems to me to show a momentary loss of common-sense. It implies that the political opinions of educated men are unimportant and that ignorance is a safer counselor of the republic. If the gentleman who in this very hall last stooped to that sneer, had asked himself what would have been the fortune of this State and this country without its educated leadership, from Samuel Adams to Charles Sumner,—both sons of Massachusetts, both scholars in politics from Harvard College,—he might have spared his country, his party, and himself, the essential recreancy to America and to manhood which lies in a sneer at education. To the cant about the pharisaism of reform there is one short and final answer. The man who tells the truth is a holier man than the liar. The man who does not steal is a better man than the thief.  3
 
 
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