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Democracy’s Faith in the Potential of Man | Jewish American Horace M. Kallen



This article is meant to contrast with Mario Palmieri on the Rebirth of Classical Studies and Lore: Critiques the Renaissance, Individualism, and Speaks of the Ancient Sages. A Jewish American, Horace M. Kallen ideals are in-line with my idea and aims. In the Introduction to A Finding Aid to the Horace M. Kallen Papers. 1902-1982 [Manuscript Collection No. 1], Horace M. Kallen’s philosophy has been characterized as Hebraism, aesthetic pragmatism, humanism, cultural pluralism, and cooperative individualism.

A major precept of his philosophy was: “I have a right to believe what you believe is wrong. If in your eyes I am wrong, yet I have that right to be wrong, and that right is unalienable.” Horace M. Kallen was born in Berenstadt, Silesia, Germany, in 1882 and immigrated to Boston with his family at the age of five. He was the son of Jacob David Kallen, a Hebrew scholar and Orthodox rabbi. He studied philosophy at Oxford University and the Paris-Sorbonne University, and after his studies, returned to Harvard and received his Ph.D. in 1908. He taught philosophy at Harvard, and logic at Clark College (1910) until he received an instructorship at the University of Wisconsin in 1911. He continued in this post until 1918 at which time he was forced to resign because of his support of the rights of pacifists in the time of World War I. This incident, we are told, increased his belief in the necessity of intellectual freedom and the right to speak out on controversial issues.

Kallen’s concept of cultural pluralism affirmed that each ethnic and cultural group in the United States had a unique contribution to make to the variety and richness of American culture, and thus provided a rationale for those Jews who wish to preserve their Jewish cultural identity in the American melting pot.

Mario Palmieri states in The Philosophy of Fascism, as Mussolini said the 17th of November, 1922:

“We want to uplift the people materially and spiritually, but not because we think that number, mass, quantity may create some special types of civilization in the future. We leave this type of ideology to those who profess themselves priests of this mysterious religion.”

Horace M. Kallen gives a contrasting reply to Mussolini as representative of the democratic ideal:

“I have been accused more than once and from opposed quarters of an undue, a utopian, faith in the possibilities of intelligence and in education as a correlate of intelligence. At all events I did not invent this faith. I acquired it from my surroundings as far as those surroundings were animated by the democratic spirit.”


At the present time, the frontier is moral, not physical. The period of free lands that seemed boundless in extent has vanished. Unused resources are now human rather than material. They are found in the waste of grown men and women who are without the chance to work, and in the young men and young women who find doors closed where there was once opportunity. The crisis that one hundred and fifty years ago called out social and political inventiveness is with us in a form which puts a heavier demand on human creativeness.

At all events this is what I mean when I say that we now have to recreate by deliberate and determined endeavor the kind of democracy which in its origin one hundred and fifty years ago was largely the product of a fortunate combination of men and circumstances. We have lived for a long time upon the heritage that came to us from the happy conjunction of men and events in an earlier day. The present state of the world is more than a reminder that we have now to put forth every energy of our own to prove worthy of our heritage. (…)

Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature. Belief in the Common Man is a familiar article in the democratic creed. That belief is without basis and significance save as it means faith in the potentialities of human nature as that nature is exhibited in every human being irrespective of race, color, sex, birth, and family, of material or cultural wealth. This faith may be enacted in statutes, but it is only on paper unless it is put in force in the attitudes which human beings display to one another in all the incidents and relations of daily life. To denounce Naziism for intolerance, cruelty and stimulation of hatred amounts to fostering insincerity if, in our personal relations to other persons, if, in our daily walk and conversation, we are moved by racial, color, or other class prejudice; indeed, by anything save a generous belief in their possibilities as human beings, a belief which brings with it the need for providing conditions which will enable these capacities to reach fulfillment. The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has. The democratic belief in the principle of leadership is a generous one. It is universal. It is belief in the capacity of every person to lead his own life free from coercion and imposition by others provided right conditions are supplied.

Democracy is a way of personal life controlled not merely by faith in human nature in general but by faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgement and action if proper conditions are furnished. I have been accused more than once and from opposed quarters of an undue, a utopian, faith in the possibilities of intelligence and in education as a correlate of intelligence. At all events I did not invent this faith. I acquired it from my surroundings as far as those surroundings were animated by the democratic spirit. For what is the faith of democracy in the role of consultation, of conference, of persuasion, of discussion, in formation of public opinion, which in the long run is self-corrective, except faith in the capacity of the intelligence of the common man to respond with common sense to the free play of facts and ideas which are secured by effective guarantees of free inquiry, free assembly, and free communication? I am willing to leave to upholders of totalitarian states of the right and the left the view that faith in the capacities of intelligence is utopian. For the faith is so deeply embedded in the methods which are intrinsic to democracy that when a professed democrat denies the faith he convicts himself of treachery to his profession…—Horace M. Kallen, The Philosopher of the Common Man; see Carl Cohen, Communism, Fascism, and Democracy, Third Edition, pp. 380-381.

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