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The Ideal Citizen

Our conceptions of what a good citizen should be are all at sixes and
sevens. No two people will be found to agree in every particular of such
an ideal, and the extreme divergences upon what is necessary, what is
permissible, what is unforgivable in him, will span nearly the whole
range of human possibility and conduct. As a consequence, we bring up
our children in a mist of vague intimations, in a confusion of warring
voices, perplexed as to what they must do, uncertain as to what they may
do, doomed to lives of compromise and fluctuating and inoperative
opinion. Ideals and suggestions come and go before their eyes like
figures in a fog. The commonest pattern, perhaps--the commonest pattern
certainly in Sunday schools and edifying books, and on all those places
and occasions when morality is sought as an end--is a clean and
able-bodied person, truthful to the extent that he does not tell lies,
temperate so far as abstinence is concerned, honest without pedantry,
and active in his own affairs, steadfastly law-abiding and respectful to
custom and usage, though aloof from the tumult of politics, brave but
not adventurous, punctual in some form of religious exercise, devoted to
his wife and children, and kind without extravagance to all men.
Everyone feels that this is not enough, everyone feels that something
more is wanted and something different; most people are a little
interested in what that difference can be, and it is a business that
much of what is more than trivial in our art, our literature and our
drama must do to fill in bit by bit and shade by shade the subtle, the
permanent detail of the answer.

It does very greatly help in this question to bear in mind the conflict
of our origins. Every age is an age of transition, of minglings, of the
breaking up of old, narrow cultures, and the breaking down of barriers,
of spiritual and often of actual interbreeding. Not only is the physical
but the moral and intellectual ancestry of everyone more mixed than ever
it was before. We blend in our blood, everyone of us, and we blend in
our ideas and purposes, craftsmen, warriors, savages, peasants, and a
score of races, and an endless multitude of social expedients and rules.
Go back but a hundred generations in the lineage of the most delicate
girl you know, and you will find a dozen murderers. You will find liars
and cheats, lascivious sinners, women who have sold themselves, slaves,
imbeciles, devotees, saints, men of fantastic courage, discreet and
watchful persons, usurers, savages, criminals and kings, and every one
of this miscellany, not simply fathering or mothering on the way to her,
but teaching urgently and with every grade of intensity, views and
habits for which they stand. Something of it all has come to her, albeit
much may seem forgotten. In every human birth, with a new little
variation, a fresh slight novelty of arrangement the old issues rise
again. Our ideas, even more than our blood, flow from multitudinous

Certain groups of ideas come to us distinctively associated with certain
marked ways of life. Many, and for a majority of us, it may be, most of
our ancestors were serfs or slaves. And men and women who have had,
generation after generation, to adapt themselves to slavery and the rule
of a master, develop an idea of goodness very different from that of
princes. From our slave ancestry, says Lester Ward, we learnt to work,
and certainly it is from slavery we derive the conception that industry,
even though it be purposeless industry, is a virtue in itself. The good
slave, too, has a morality of restraints; he abstains from the food he
handles and hungers for, and he denies himself pride and initiative of
every sort. He is honest in not taking, but he is unscrupulous about
adequate service. He makes no virtue of frankness, but much of kindly
helpfulness and charity to the weak. He has no sense of duty in planning
or economising. He is polite and soft-spoken, and disposed to irony
rather than denunciation, ready to admire cuteness and condone
deception. Not so the rebel. That tradition is working in us also. It
has been the lot of vast masses of population in every age to be living
in successful or unsuccessful resistance to mastery, to be dreading
oppression or to be just escaped from it. Resentment becomes a virtue
then, and any peace with the oppressor a crime. It is from rebel origins
so many of us get the idea that disrespectfulness is something of a duty
and obstinacy a fine thing. And under the force of this tradition we
idealise the rugged and unmanageable, we find something heroic in rough
clothes and hands, in bad manners, insensitive behaviour, and
unsociableness. And a community of settlers, again, in a rough country,
fighting for a bare existence, makes a virtue of vehemence, of a hasty
rapidity of execution. Hurried and driven men glorify "push" and
impatience, and despise finish and fine discriminations as weak and
demoralising things. These three, the Serf, the Rebel, and the
Squatter, are three out of a thousand types and aspects that have gone
to our making. In the American composition they are dominant. But all
those thousand different standards and traditions are our material, each
with something fine, and each with something evil. They have all
provided the atmosphere of upbringing for men in the past. Out of them
and out of unprecedented occasions, we in this newer age, in which there
are no slaves, in which every man is a citizen, in which the
conveniences of a great and growing civilisation makes the frantic
avidity of the squatter a nuisance, have to set ourselves to frame the
standard of our children's children, to abandon what the slave or the
squatter or the rebel found necessary and that we find unnecessary, to
fit fresh requirements to our new needs. So we have to develop our
figure of the fine man, our desirable citizen in that great and noble
civilised state we who have a "sense of the state" would build out of
the confusions of our world.

To describe that ideal modern citizen now is at best to make a guess and
a suggestion of what must be built in reality by the efforts of a
thousand minds. But he will be a very different creature from that
indifferent, well-behaved business man who passes for a good citizen
to-day. He will be neither under the slave tradition nor a rebel nor a
vehement elemental man. Essentially he will be aristocratic,
aristocratic not in the sense that he has slaves or class inferiors,
because probably he will have nothing of the sort, but aristocratic in
the sense that he will feel the State belongs to him and he to the
State. He will probably be a public servant; at any rate, he will be a
man doing some work in the complicated machinery of the modern community
for a salary and not for speculative gain. Typically, he will be a
professional man. I do not think the ideal modern citizen can be a
person living chiefly by buying for as little as he can give and selling
for as much as he can get; indeed, most of what we idolise to-day as
business enterprise I think he will regard with considerable contempt.
But, then, I am a Socialist, and look forward to the time when the
economic machinery of the community will be a field not for private
enrichment but for public service.

He will be good to his wife and children as he will be good to his
friend, but he will be no partisan for wife and family against the
common welfare. His solicitude will be for the welfare of all the
children of the community; he will have got beyond blind instinct; he
will have the intelligence to understand that almost any child in the
world may have as large a share as his own offspring in the parentage of
his great-great-grandchildren His wife he will treat as his equal; he
will not be "kind" to her, but fair and frank and loving, as one equal
should be with another; he will no more have the impertinence to pet and
pamper her, to keep painful and laborious things out of her knowledge to
"shield" her from the responsibility of political and social work, than
he will to make a Chinese toy of her and bind her feet. He and she will
love that they may enlarge and not limit one another.

Consciously and deliberately the ideal citizen will seek beauty in
himself and in his way of living. He will be temperate rather than
harshly abstinent, and he will keep himself fit and in training as an
elementary duty. He will not be a fat or emaciated person. Fat, panting
men, and thin, enfeebled ones cannot possibly be considered good
citizens any more than dirty or verminous people. He will be just as
fine and seemly in his person as he can be, not from vanity and
self-assertion but to be pleasing and agreeable to his fellows. The ugly
dress and ugly bearing of the "good man" of to-day will be as
incomprehensible to him as the filth of a palaeolithic savage is to us.
He will not speak of his "frame," and hang clothes like sacks over it;
he will know and feel that he and the people about him have wonderful,
delightful and beautiful bodies.

And--I speak of the ideal common citizen--he will be a student and a
philosopher. To understand will be one of his necessary duties. His
mind, like his body, will be fit and well clothed. He will not be too
busy to read and think, though he may be too busy to rush about to get
ignorantly and blatantly rich. It follows that, since he will have a
mind exercised finely and flexible and alert, he will not be a secretive
man. Secretiveness and secret planning are vulgarity; men and women need
to be educated, and he will be educated out of these vices. He will be
intensely truthful, not simply in the vulgar sense of not misstating
facts when pressed, but truthful in the manner of the scientific man or
the artist, and as scornful of concealment as they; truthful, that is to
say, as the expression of a ruling desire to have things made plain and
clear, because that so they are most beautiful and life is at its

And all that I have written of him is equally true and applies word for
word, with only such changes of gender as are needed, to the woman
citizen also.

H.G. Wells