The Ideal Citizen, by H. G. Wells

An Englishman Looks at the World

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 sources.

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 finest….

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.