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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? This is Prosperity. 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.
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! I step up, and in timid tones begin, "Reverend sir, will you tell me by what right you take this wealth?
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Instantly a frown comes upon his face, and he cries in a voice of thunder, "Blasphemer! 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 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.
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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.
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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.
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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. When the first savage saw his hut destroyed by a bolt of lightning, he fell down upon his face in terror. He had no conception of natural forces, of laws of electricity; he saw this event as the act of an individual intelligence. To-day we read about fairies and demons, dryads and fauns and satyrs, Wotan and Thor and Vulcan, Freie and Flora and Ceres, and we think of all these as pretty fancies, play-products of the mind; losing sight of the fact that they were originally meant with entire seriousness—that not merely did ancient man believe in them, but was forced to believe in them, because the mind must have an explanation of things that happen, and an individual intelligence was the only explanation available.
The story of the hero who slays the devouring dragon was not merely a symbol of day and night, of summer and winter; it was a literal explanation of the phenomena, it was the science of early times.
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Men imagined supernatural powers such as they could comprehend. If the lightning god destroyed a hut, obviously it must be because the owner of the hut had given offense; so the owner must placate the god, using those means which would be effective in the quarrels of men—presents of roast meats and honey and fresh fruits, of wine and gold and jewels and women, accompanied by friendly words and gestures of submission. And when in spite of all things the natural evil did not cease, when the people continued to die of pestilence, then came the opportunity for hysterical or ambitious persons to discover new ways of penetrating the mind of the god.
There would be dreamers of dreams and seers of visions and hearers of voices; readers of the entrails of beasts and interpreters of the flight of birds; there would be burning bushes and stone tablets on mountain-tops, and inspired words dictated to aged disciples on lonely islands. There would arise special castes of men and women, learned in these sacred matters; and these priestly castes would naturally emphasize the importance of their calling, would hold themselves aloof from the common herd, endowed with special powers and entitled to special privileges.