Bootstrap-lifting? says the reader.
It is a vision I have seen: upon a vast plain, men and women are gathered in dense throngs, crouched in uncomfortable and distressing positions, their fingers hooked in the straps of their boots. They are engaged in lifting themselves; tugging and straining until they grow red in the face, exhausted. The perspiration streams from their foreheads, they show every symptom of distress; the eyes of all are fixed, not upon each other, nor upon their boot-straps, but upon the sky above. There is a look of rapture upon their faces, and now and then, amid grunts and groans, they cry out with excitement and triumph.
I approach one and say to him, "Friend, what is this you are doing?"
He answers, without pausing to glance at me, "I am performing spiritual exercises. See how I rise?"
"But," I say, "you are not rising at all!"
Whereat he becomes instantly angry. "You are one of the scoffers!"
"But, friend," I protest, "don't you feel the earth under your feet?"
"You are a materialist!"
"But, friend, I can see--"
"You are without spiritual vision!"
And so I move on among the sweating and groaning hordes. Being of a sympathetic turn of mind, I cannot help being distressed by the prevalence of this singular practice among so large a portion of the human race. How is it possible that none of them should suspect the futility of their procedure? Or can it really be that I am uncomprehending? That in some way they are actually getting off the ground, or about to get off the ground?
Then I observe a new phenomenon: a man gliding here and there among the bootstrap-lifters, approaching from the rear and slipping his hands into their pockets. The position of the spiritual exercisers greatly facilitates his work; their eyes being cast up to heaven, they do not see him, their thoughts being occupied, they do not heed him; he goes through their pockets at leisure, and transfers the contents to a bag he carries, and then moves on to the next victim. I watch him for a while, and finally approach and ask, "What are you doing, sir?"
He answers, "I am picking pockets."
"Oh," I say, puzzled by his matter-of-course tone. "But--I beg pardon--are you a thief?"
"Oh, no," hie answers, smilingly, "I am the agent of the Wholesale Pickpockets' Association. This is Prosperity."
"I see," I reply. "And these people let you--"
"It is the law," he says. "It is also the gospel."
I turn, following his glance, and observe another person approaching--a stately figure, clad in scarlet and purple robes, moving with slow dignity. He gazes about at the sweating and grunting hordes; now and then he stops and lifts his hands in a gesture of benediction, and proclaims in rolling tones, "Blessed are the Bootstrap-lifters, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven." He moves on, and after a bit stops and announces again, "Man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that cometh out of the mouth of the prophets and priests of Bootstrap-lifting."
Watching a while longer, I see this majestic one approach the agent of the Wholesale Pickpockets' Association. The agent greets him as a friend, and proceeds to transfer to the pockets of his capacious robes a generous share of the loot which he has collected. The majestic one does not cringe, nor does he make any effort to hide what is going on. On the contrary he cries aloud, "It is more blessed to give than to receive!" And again he cries, "The laborer is worthy of his hire!" And a third time he cries, yet more sternly, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's!" And the Bootstrap-lifters pause long enough to answer: "Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law!" Then they renew their straining and tugging.
I step up, and in timid tones begin, "Reverend sir, will you tell me by what right you take this wealth?"
Instantly a frown comes upon his face, and he cries in a voice of thunder, "Blasphemer!" And all the Bootstrap-lifters desist from their lifting, and menace me with furious looks. There is a general call for a policeman of the Wholesale Pickpockets' Association; and so I fall silent, and slink away in the throng, and thereafter keep my thoughts to myself.
Over the vast plain I wander, observing a thousand strange and incredible and terrifying manifestations of the Bootstrap-lifting impulse. There is, I discover, a regular propaganda on foot; a long time ago--no man can recall how far back--the Wholesale Pickpockets made the discovery of the ease with which a man's pockets could be rifled while he was preoccupied with spiritual exercises, and they began offering prizes for the best essays in support of the practice. Now their propaganda is everywhere triumphant, and year by year we see an increase in the rewards and emoluments of the prophets and priests of the cult. The ground is covered with stately temples of various designs, all of which I am told are consecrated to Bootstrap-lifting. I come to where a group of people are occupied in laying the corner-stone of a new white marble structure; I inquire and am informed it is the First Church of Bootstrap-lifters, Scientist. As I stand watching, a card is handed to me, informing me that a lady will do my Bootstrap-lifting at five dollars per lift.
I go on to another building, which I am told is a library containing volumes in defense of the Bootstrap-lifters, published under the auspices of the Wholesale Pickpockets. I enter, and find endless vistas of shelves, also several thousand current magazines and papers. I consult these--for my legs have given out in the effort to visit and inspect all phases of the Bootstrap-lifting practice. I discover that hardly a week passes that some one does not start a new cult, or revive an old one; if I had a hundred life-times I could not know all the creeds and ceremonies, the services and rituals, the litanies and liturgies, the hymns, anthems and offertories of Bootstrap-lifting. There are the Holy Roman Bootstrap-lifters, whose priests are fed by Transubstantiation; the established Anglican Bootstrap-lifters, whose priests live by "livings"; the Baptist Bootstrap-lifters, whose preachers practice total immersion in Standard Oil. There are Yogi Bootstrap-lifters with flowing robes of yellow silk; Theosophist Bootstrap-lifters with green and purple auras; Mormon Bootstrap-lifters, Mazdaznan Bootstrap-lifters, Spiritualist and Spirit-Fruit, Millerite and Dowieite, Holy Roller and Holy Jumper, Come-to-glory negro, Billy Sunday base-ball and Salvation Army bass-drum Bootstrap-lifters. There are the thousand varieties of "New Thought" Bootstrap-lifters; the mystic and transcendentalist, Swedenborgian and Jacob Boehme Bootstrap-lifters; the Elbert Hubbard high-art Bootstrap-lifters with half a million magazinelets at two bits apiece; the "uplift" and "optimist," the Ralph Waldo Trine and Orison Swett Marden Bootstrap-lifters with a hundred thousand volumes at one dollar per volume. There are the Platonist and Hegelian and Kantian professors of collegiate metaphysical Bootstrap-lifting at several thousand dollars per year each. There are the Nietzschean Bootstrap-lifters, who lift themselves to the Superman, and the art-for-art's-sake, neo-Pagan Bootstrap-lifters, who lift themselves down to the Ape.
Excepting possibly the last-mentioned group, the priests of all these cults, the singers, shouters, prayers and exhorters of Bootstrap-lifting have as their distinguishing characteristic that they do very little lifting at their own bootstraps, and less at any other man's. Now and then you may see one bend and give a delicate tug, of a purely symbolical character: as when the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Bootstrap-lifters comes once a year to wash the feet of the poor; or when the Sunday-school Superintendent of the Baptist Bootstrap-lifters shakes the hand of one of his Colorado mine-slaves. But for the most part the priests and preachers of Bootstrap-lifting walk haughtily erect, many of them being so swollen with prosperity that they could not reach their bootstraps if they wanted to. Their role in life is to exhort other men to more vigorous efforts at self-elevation, that the agents of the Wholesale Pickpockets' Association may ply their immemorial role with less chance of interference.
The reader, offended by this raillery, asks if I mean to impugn the sincerity of all who preach the supremacy of the soul. No; I admit the honesty of the heroes and madmen of history. All I ask of the preacher is that he shall make an effort to practice his doctrine. Let him be tormented like Don Quixote; let him go mad like Nietzsche; let him stand upon a pillar and be devoured by worms like Simeon Stylites--on these terms I grant to any dreamer the right to hold himself above economic science.
Man is an evasive beast, given to cultivating strange notions about himself. He is humiliated by his simian ancestry, and tries to deny his animal nature, to persuade himself that he is not limited by its weaknesses nor concerned in its fate. And this impulse may be harmless, when it is genuine. But what are we to say when we see the formulas of heroic self-deception made use of by unheroic self-indulgence? What are we to say when we see asceticism preached to the poor by fat and comfortable retainers of the rich? What are we to say when we see idealism become hypocrisy, and the moral and spiritual heritage of mankind twisted to the knavish purposes of class-cruelty and greed? What I say is--Bootstrap-lifting!
It is the fate of many abstract words to be used in two senses, one good and the other bad. Morality means the will to righteousness, or it means Anthony Comstock; democracy means the rule of the people, or it means Tammany Hall. And so it is with the word "Religion". In its true sense Religion is the most fundamental of the soul's impulses, the impassioned love of life, the feeling of its preciousness, the desire to foster and further it. In that sense every thinking man must be religious; in that sense Religion is a perpetually self-renewing force, the very nature of our being. In that sense I have no thought of assailing it, I would make clear that I hold it beyond assailment.
But we are denied the pleasure of using the word in that honest sense, because of another which has been given to it. To the ordinary man "Religion" means, not the soul's longing for growth, the "hunger and thirst after righteousness", but certain forms in which this hunger has manifested itself in history, and prevails to-day throughout the world; that is to say, institutions having fixed dogmas and "revelations", creeds and rituals, with an administering caste claiming supernatural sanction. By such institutions the moral strivings of the race, the affections of childhood and the aspirations of youth are made the prerogatives and stock in trade of ecclesiastical hierarchies. It is the thesis of this book that "Religion" in this sense is a source of income to parasites, and the natural ally of every form of oppression and exploitation.
If by my jesting at "Bootstrap-lifting" I have wounded some dear prejudice of the reader, let me endeavor to speak in a more persuasive voice. I am a man who has suffered, and has seen the suffering of others; I have devoted my life to analyzing the causes of the suffering, to find out if it be necessary and fore-ordained, or if by any chance there be a way of escape for future generations. I have found that the latter is the case; the suffering is needless, it can with ease and certainty be banished from the earth. I know this with the knowledge of science--in the same way that the navigator of a ship knows his latitude and longitude, and the point of the compass to which he must steer in order to reach the port.
Come, reader, let us put aside prejudice, and the terrors of the cults of the unknown. The power which made us has given us a mind, and the impulse to its use; let us see what can be done with it to rid the earth of its ancient evils. And do not be troubled if at the outset this book seems to be entirely "destructive". I assure you that I am no crude materialist, I am not so shallow as to imagine that our race will be satisfied with a barren rationalism. I know that the old symbols came out of the heart of man because they corresponded to certain needs of the heart of man. I know that new symbols will be found, corresponding more exactly to the needs of our time. If here I set to work to tear down an old and ramshackle building, it is not from blind destructfulness, but as an architect who means to put a new and sounder structure in its place. Before we part company, I shall submit the blue print of that new home of the spirit.