Chapter 2: Long Ropes and Strong Stakes

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 2: Long Ropes and Strong Stakes

Henry Ward Beecher, so we are told, would often work out an idea through a long course of abstract argument until suddenly his thought took fire and blazed out in a simile or metaphor. Then the wise preacher would draw his pencil through the laborious disquisition, and all that the people ever got was a flaming picture. One suspects that Isaiah had gone through some such procedure when, having long brooded over the estate of his people, he flashed out his vision of their need: "Lengthen your ropes and strengthen your stakes." Any camper acquainted with tents recognizes the figure. When you pitch a tent, if you do lengthen the ropes you must strengthen the stakes.

One does not have to look far in modern life to discover examples of such increased extension calling for increased stability. A prominent business man recently went to pieces in a collapse of character that astonished his friends. He had all the typical modern virtues -- energy, forcefulness, vigor, the aggressive ability to put things across. But he lacked moral stability. Evidently his activity had been stretched at the expense of his steadiness. He was living an overextended life. Like a tipsy tent, he had long ropes and weak stakes.

Mark Twain said once, "If I were a heathen, I would rear a statue to Energy, and fall down and worship it." That is entirely characteristic of the modern age. Think of the words which our generation’s attitudes naturally suggest. They are all words of action. Aggressive, progressive, dynamic, vigorous -- such words are applicable to our time. But who, describing our modernity, would ever think of words like these: poise, balance, peace, steadfastness, stability? Yet anyone who knows either biography or history must see that one of the primary tests of character is the ability to increase staunchness as you extend strain. Man’s life is like a tree. Branches demand roots; every increase in the superstructure, giving purchase for the wind to get hold upon, requires a new grip on the steadfast earth.

Some of the most lamentable collapses in history have taken place in overextended lives which neglected this elemental necessity. Francis Bacon, for example, had one of the most useful and able minds ever entrusted to a man. When he was scarcely fifteen years old, the great thought took possession of him that the ancient method of studying nature was wrong and that he was meant to right it. The spirit in which he went about that work, the results of which have put the world eternally in his debt, is fairly indicated by a memorandum written in his early forties and never intended for publicity: "Believing that I was born for the service of mankind, and regarding the care of the commonwealth as a kind of common property, which, like the air and the water, belongs to everybody, I set myself to consider in what way mankind might best be served, and what service I was myself best fitted by nature to perform." Moreover, he had moral insight of a high order, as is shown by his essays, which still remain classic in the literature of ethics. His life was not blameless, but he probably would have lived and died in respectability had it not been for his advancement in power. He was made Lord Chancellor of England. He was created Viscount St. Albans. He moved out into an extended opportunity and became, not only the most learned man in the empire, but also one of the most powerful. And then he fell. Convicted of gross bribery and financial corruption, to which he abjectly confessed, he lived his last five years a disgraced man.

The length of his ropes got beyond the strength of his stakes.

Countless similar stories bear witness to the fact that man’s life is built, like a Gothic cathedral, on the principle of balanced thrusts. Every new arch must be braced with a new foundation. Lifting the altitude or spreading the expanse of the nave requires stronger supporting walls or flying buttresses. Each outthrust calls for an inthrust. And the difficulty in our expansive modern life lies here: ever achieving new powers, enlarging our opportunities, widening our liberties and everywhere complicating our lives, we forget that, unless we correspondingly strengthen our moral and spiritual foundations, the whole overextended superstructure will come down about our ears, as did the old Philistine banquet hall when Samson broke the pillars.


A vivid illustration of the truth which we are driving at is presented in our modern young people. They are enjoying a greatly extended freedom, to balance which they have not yet achieved a stabilizing self-control. Young people used to be under artificial, external restraint. Even though, as Ruskin said, Sunday did cast a "lurid shade" two days in advance, they had to go through it. They may not have been saints above the present representatives of youth, but they were compelled, the girls especially, by the strict canons of the social code, to act more as though they were. Parental authority was still in vogue and, while fathers and mothers were probably no wiser than they are now, their ipse dixit had more weight and drive in it when they assumed the purple and played the autocrat.

In this last generation these external restraints have been giving way at an accelerating rate. Let us hasten to rejoice in it! A visit to the Far East should encourage our wavering faith in the general soundness of our Western methods of treating youth. The whole Asiatic tradition is on the side of solving youth’s problems, and especially the problem of relationship between the sexes, by seclusion and repression. In an old-fashioned Chinese home, the girl from her twelfth year on did not go outside her father’s house until she went to her husband’s, and a Japanese girl when grown could say that she had never come so near a man, even her own brother, as to touch his hand.

We in the West are trying the opposite method. Our young people are the freemen of history -- the most unsecluded, unsuppressed, unsuperintended youth of all time. Our ideal is to train them in individual initiative, to develop independent judgment and control, to throw them on their own resources -- which is excellent when they have the resources! But many of them are making unmitigated nuisances of themselves because the length of their freedom has got away beyond the strength of their self-control. An unchaperoned group of girls, supposedly from "our best families," recently went with a publicly organized party on a European tour. During the entire trip they drank to excess, they smoked to excess, and their personal immodesty became a scandal to the party. They were enjoying a degree of liberty never before accorded to young women, and they were betraying their utter inability to handle it. Granting the social restraints of even a generation ago, those same girls probably would be decent, modest, self-respecting young women. As it is, their lengthened ropes have betrayed their weak stakes and their tents are wildly flapping in the wind.

If, therefore, one had a chance to broadcast a message which all young people would hear, one might well choose some such theme as this: real freedom never consists in mere release from old restraints.

A young tree set out in a city’s park with an iron cage around it for support may well resent the humiliation of that external curb, but if all the freedom which the tree seeks is release from that encumbrance it will discover that the only freedom which it has achieved is freedom to fall over when the wind blows. The first step toward real freedom for that tree is to grow deep roots of its own on which it can depend. Freedom never is obtained by mere release from old limitations; freedom is the positive substitution of inward self-control for external restraints.

This unlearned truth has cost the race some stiff experiences. The first warriors for democracy, for example, were tempted to believe that they would be free if only they could slay the tyrant and overturn the throne on which so long and so oppressively he had been sitting. They had to learn that they could behead Louis XVI and get Robespierre in his place. They have just been learning that they can shoot the Czar and get Lenin and Trotzky instead. Freedom in the state does not consist alone in making a tyrant stop taking charge of the people; it consists in the intelligent ability of the people to take charge of themselves. Real democracy was not won when kings went; real democracy is still to be won. The facts which our incipient, embryonic democracy must face are more staggering than the old tyrants were -- for example, that at the last presidential election almost twenty-eight million people who were qualified to vote did not exercise that privilege; that an accredited estimate is possibly true that in the United States four million people are living in destitution. The question now is not whether a tyrant shall continue to control us; the question is whether the people will prove able profitably to control themselves. That is always the ultimate question in any campaign for freedom. And the youth of this generation need very much to learn it.

This is no sweeping indictment of our young people. The criticisms hurled against them are often frantic and extreme. Many of the critics forget their own youth; many others mistake superficial eddies for main currents; many others, seeing rightly the wayward wildness of some of the younger generation, fail to see the splendid spirit of the rest of them. They take no note of the sacrificial devotion with which some youths are taking this chaotic, bloody world from the hands of the older generation in the hope of making something out of it. But when all such allowance has been made, a serious problem remains.

There are altogether too many of our young people who, in expansion of their freedom, have passed the limit. Their staunchness is not equal to the strain.


In another way this same test of character illustrated in the expansion of the powers and privileges of modern women. The gaining of this amplified life for womanhood has been a great fight. Even equality with men before the law has been denied women in our Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence up to our own generation. Today we are debating the problem of equal pay for equal work; two centuries ago women were vainly desiring equal punishment for equal crime.

Even today the law does not recognize the misconduct of a husband as equally culpable with the misconduct of a wife. Indeed, no woman in England ever protested publicly and legally against her husband’s infidelity until 1801 and there were only three cases up to 1840 where a wife took the initiative in suit for divorce. Until 1857, in England, a woman when she married relinquished all property of her own, even her daily earnings if she worked, into the absolute control of her husband. No revolution in human history is more important than the emancipation of womanhood from such serfdom to her present independence.

She has won the right to be educated. It was not easy to win. Mary Somerville, overcoming, as her daughter says, "obstacles apparently insurmountable, at a time when women were well-nigh totally debarred from education"; Charlotte Bronte, writing in secret and publishing under a pseudonym because only so could she hope for just criticism; Harriet Hunt, admitted to the Harvard Medical School in 1850 but forced out by the enraged students; Elizabeth Blackwell, applying to twelve medical schools before she could secure admission, and meeting with insult and contumely in her endeavor to study and practice medicine; Mary Lyon, treated as a wild fanatic because she wanted American girls to be educated -- such figures are typical in woman’s struggle for intellectual opportunity. It has been a great fight and the victory is almost contemporary.

Difficult, too, has been woman’s struggle for the right to work. For while men for a long time have been entirely willing that women should scrub their office stairs, only recently have they become willing that women should be lawyers, physicians, ministers and merchants. As for political equality, Charles Fox said in 1797: "It has never been suggested in all the theories and projects of the most absurd speculation, that it would be advisable to extend the elective suffrage to the female sex."

A typical modern woman glories in this expanded life which has come to womanhood from this fourfold struggle for legal, educational, occupational, and political freedom. There is occasion here, however, for something besides jubilation. One need not be reactionary to see that these lengthened ropes are pulling on the stakes. Many women of this new generation are not profiting at all by their enlarged privilege; they are simply exhibiting their lack of balance in handling it. The desirable solution does not lie in shortening the ropes, but it does lie in strengthening the stakes. After a long and successful battle for expanded opportunity, modern womanhood needs reemphasis upon the spiritual factors which make not so much for extension as for depth. Unless we can get out of the new system motherhood as consecrated, spiritual quality as fine, idealism as exalted, religious faith as cleansing and ennobling as distinguished previous generations, the new system will have failed in its most important object.


All history is a running commentary upon the danger of an overextended life. As one watches the advance of civilization he can observe two processes in continual operation. The first is expansion. Florescent days come in history when new ideals light men’s minds and new achievements crown their endeavors -- as when the new astronomy enlarged the universe, or when Columbus and his fellow pioneers opened new continents to the imagination and use of mankind, or when the new science began putting into man’s hands mastery over the world’s latent resources. Such periods of expansion amplify our lives and enlarge their opportunities.

Always, however, a second process -- not expansion but consolidation -- must be close behind when this new outreaching of life threatens to overextend itself and end in ruin. In the business world, for example, the wonder is not that discord and wrong so prevail. The marvel is that the human mind and will have developed sufficiently to run our modern business at all.

Just after the Revolutionary War, John Marshall described the American nation as "an infant people, spreading themselves through a wilderness occupied only by savages and wild beasts." The life of a merchant prince or financier of those early days must have been comparatively simple. No steam-driven machines, no telephone, telegraph or wireless, no organized labor, no fluctuating foreign exchange, and the other side of the ocean so far away that Thomas Jefferson could hope that Europe would never have more to do with us than with China! How we have lengthened our ropes since then! Many a modern business man as a matter of course now carries responsibilities so great that in comparison an ancient emperor would look like a small retail merchant on a side street.

In consequence, the immediate need of our business life is not more extended activity but more fundamental morality. So, in a military operation, the charge may be enthusiastically pushed and new ground gained rapidly until the commanders become worried about their very success. The process of advance may be carried perilously far. The time comes when the men must dig in, the lines must be consolidated, the communications with the base must be reestablished, the commissariat must be brought up.


By this new world of complicated relationships the lives of all of us are encompassed. Multitudes of people are habitually stretched to their utmost to meet its demands. Most of us are living under a strain that human nature never was intended to bear. The resultant need is evident. Long emphasis upon expansion must be matched by renewed emphasis upon those spiritual forces which stabilize and fortify men, confirm them in self-control, build moral foundations under them, give tenacity to meet tension and steadfastness to meet strain.

And among all such forces there is nothing to compare with real religion.

Why is it, for example, that whenever in recent years books like Wagner’s "The Simple Life" or Cabot’s "What Men Live By" have been published the sale has been phenomenal? Is it not because there is something the matter with us in the realm in which such books move?

We are energetic, forceful, vigorous, progressive. But we are also distracted, harassed, perplexed, overstrained, restless. Our excessive activity runs to froth and fume. We lack adequate spiritual reserves, and it never can be well with us until we find them.

Peace, for example, in its personal meaning, is a word which is not only inapplicable to modern life but is even distasteful to modern ears. Like Mark Twain we would erect an altar to Energy, but hardly to Peace. But no person or generation can in the end afford to take that attitude. Peacelessness is the symptom of a deadly malady, for it is the sign of powerlessness. It springs from the lack of adequate resources. Find a man, for example, who is worried about his business and you will probably discover that he has overextended himself. When credit is easy his business grows rapidly, but with stringency in the money market and credit tight he discovers that he is not ready for an emergency. Of course he is anxious; anxiety is due to insufficient power in reserve. It is nervous business trying to live in a tent whose ropes are long and whose stakes are weak.

Peace, on the other hand, is one of the supreme, positive achievements of the human spirit, because it means the possession of adequate resources. Peace in daily work is the consciousness of health and ability to spare so that when one’s tasks are done there is a margin all around. Peace in business is the consciousness of capital in plenty, so that one need not fear what the day may bring. Peace in the family is the consciousness that, under all the strains inevitably incident to the running of a home, there is an unfailing wealth of love and devotion and fidelity to fall back upon. Peace in the soul is the consciousness that, however difficult life may be, we are not living it alone, that above and beneath and around us are the resources of the Eternal Spirit, that we can depend upon the reality, nearness and availability of the Unseen Friend.

In this age of overextended activity, our streets are thronged with people whose fundamental need is such spiritual underpinning, and whatever else it may be the function of religion at its best to provide, it certainly is the business of religion to provide that. In the last analysis nothing except a deep and downright faith in God can provide that. We all have read those books of Mark Twain which so have added to the merriment of nations, but it would be profitable at least once to read Mark Twain’s final summary of life’s meaning, his deliberate and well-considered statement of mankind’s significance upon this earth:

"A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other; age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities; those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. The burden of pain, care, misery grows heavier year by year; at length ambition is dead; pride is dead; vanity is dead; longing for release is in their place. It comes at last -- the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them -- and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence, where they achieved nothing, where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness; where they have left no sign that they have existed -- a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever."

Endeavoring to explain these words upon the lips of such a man as Mark Twain, one cannot say that Mark Twain had a melancholy temperament, for he made the whole world laugh. One cannot say that Mark Twain lacked moral quality and courage, for he did not. He was a robust, vigorous, admirable man. One of the finest deeds in the annals of financial integrity is Mark Twain’s voluntary shouldering of a debt of honor and his paying of it at the cost of infinite labor. Nor can one say that Mark Twain did not have at his disposal all that modern knowledge could tell him. But Mark Twain had utterly lost his religious faith. He had concluded that the ultimate reality is physical and nothing more. He had decided that when humanity has finished its course on this earth, it will all have been, as another phrased it, " a brief and discreditable episode on one of the minor planets." That materialistic philosophy knocked the foundations out. For spiritual stability that can stand the strain of life’s toil and the shock of life’s tragedy and bring a man out inwardly victorious over disappointment and disillusion is to be found ultimately in a clear religious insight that

. . . This world’s no blot for us

Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good.

Granted all that is to be said against the type of religion that is popularly presented in our day, the fact remains that what we need most is more religion of a better kind. This twentieth century is desperately in need of stabilizing forces, and in personal character one of the primary tests is the ability to realize in experience an ideal presented long ago: "Everyone therefore that heareth these words of mine, and doeth them, shall be likened unto a wise man, who built his house upon the rock."