Chapter 16. Man the Reformer

New world

If you let people think the world is theirs to reform, reformers will choose conflicting goals. Those who would reform education have irreconcilable theories for how children should be taught. No profession or livelihood is safe, nor is any personal or domestic activity, since it may support a practice or product that another regards as evil. True believers will always believe their belief is based in truth, even when other beliefs contradict it.

Pseudoscientific fads

Phrenology Mesmerism Clairvoyance Psychometry Perfectionism Vegetarianism Hydropathy Thousands were persuaded by convincing speakers and demonstrations. Conviction and delusion share a common feeling.

Social welfare

It had not been well established that government should care for people who couldn’t care for themselves. Jails, asylums, and hospitals we’re not equipped or trained to care for the impoverished insane, so their treatment was inhumane; many were caged or chained.


The principles of the Declaration of Independence were not applied to women at the time, nor to any but to landed white gentlemen. To remove these limitations, a battle of hearts and minds had to be fought, a difficult task because the petitioners had no standing under the law, and those who had standing had to be gracious in defeat and those who gained standing had to be gracious in victory. Only teaching and learning a greater good has been successful, partially successful, while the stubbornness of interests vested against change persists.


In America, wilderness has been a place where both knowledge and imagination fall short, which the mind and heart paint in false colors, idealized or fearful, and where belief has more sway than reality. In reality, wilderness can be a dilapidated farm, a desert, a clot of woods by a lake, or an overgrown gully of a creek running through a cluster of high-rise tenements. Also, the imagination of an adult and the imagination of a child are equal when ignorance is universal.

Working for a living

Henry David Thoreau observed that he could labor with his hands “about six weeks in a year” to “meet all the expenses of living.” Before civilization, one worked directly for food, clothing, shelter, and one’s own amusement. Today, one works in a system that is less direct, letting others take some of the profit. Also, we work for many things that are not basic necessities. Consequently, labor today is a full-time year-long occupation. Civilization is solving the problem of idle hands and profitless activities.


The history of the Shakers shows it’s not the perfection of the system but its suitability to basic human behaviors that determines its long term success. Otherwise, we would all be Shakers.