The World According to Kipling

Wednesday, October 23, 2013
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On October 10, 1923, Nobel Prize–winning author Rudyard Kipling delivered the Rectorial Address to the students of St. Andrews University in Scotland. The title of his address was, “Independence.”

For most Americans the word independence elicits thoughts of the Declaration of Independence, of the liberation of the American colonies from the British crown. It connotes the freedom of a people from their political overlords, the birth of a new nation free to chart its own future and to establish its own government.

This is well and good, and worthy of annual celebration. But as Kipling’s now 90-year-old discourse on independence makes clear, the term once conveyed an idea even more fundamental to human freedom than national autonomy. The independence of which Kipling spoke was that of the individual. It was personal liberty by another name.

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  Rudyard Kipling. Photo credit: CWGC

And so it had been for the founders of the American nation. The striving for the independence of one people from the domination of another was, at bottom, about individual liberty. It was about the freedom of the individual to participate in the design and actions of his own government with the possibility and promise that he might associate with whomever he chose, worship or not by his own lights, speak his mind and conscience, and enjoy the fruits of his own ambitions and endeavors free from the interference and depredations of strangers, neighbors, and government.

The American revolutionaries and the founders of the American nation understood this tie between national and individual independence. They wrote and spoke of liberty as both public and private. For them, public liberty was the freedom of a people to govern themselves, while private liberty was freedom from both private and governmental oppression. Kipling would have cautioned the self-reliant founders of the American nation that liberty is also freedom from dependence, whether on others or on government.

The public liberty of American self government, often framed as popular sovereignty, was founded not on a principle of majority rule in a democratic republic but on the pragmatic recognition that majority rule honors private liberty, while making government of an extended republic possible. Popular sovereignty in government arises naturally from individual sovereignty, which is private liberty. But the founding generation understood well, particularly after their experience under the Articles of Confederation, that public liberty does not guarantee private liberty. Independence of the nation under a regime of popular sovereignty does not guarantee independence of the individual, hence the constitutional protections of individual liberty—of individual independence—from the usually well meaning and sometimes nefarious designs of the majority and their representatives.

There are many today, as there always have been, who mistake majority rule for the independence we celebrate every July 4. They conclude that the American Revolution is fulfilled by the actions of popularly elected legislators and will be advanced by the popular election of the president. They are encouraged and supported by a Supreme Court that balances individual rights, even those of the First Amendment, against the will of the majority. And their numbers grow as more and more Americans become dependent on government, rather than independent, self-sustaining individuals.

Kipling’s address on independence to the students of St. Andrews began with these lines from the Scottish poet Robert Burns:

To catch Dame Fortune’s golden smile,

Assiduous wait upon her,

And gather gear by every wile

That’s justified by honour.


Not for to hide it in a hedge,

Nor for a train attendant,

But for the glorious privilege

Of being independent.

“Independence,” said Kipling, “means, ‘Let every herring hang by its own head.’ It signifies the blessed state of hanging on to as few persons and things as possible; and it leads up to the singular privilege of a man owning himself.”

As students of ichthyology and most lovers of the pickled variety know, herring swim in schools. Where the school goes, all follow. They are as one. Indeed it might be said that it takes a school to raise a herring, just as it was said by former first lady and aspiring presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that it takes a village to raise a child. So we might anticipate that Mrs. Clinton and her many admirers would object that there is nothing to be celebrated in each herring hanging by its own head—that there is nothing blessed in being dependent on as few persons as possible.

Kipling speculated that human life began in the tree-tops where each individual had to maintain his “balance on the branches, under penalty of death or disablement.” But it was lonely in the “family-tree” so he “associated himself with his fellows on the flat, for predatory or homicidal purposes.” To succeed in these endeavors man mastered the “arts of camouflage known to the beasts” and “could act, to admiration, any kind of lie then extant.” And so, when man developed speech the first man to speak told a lie, “a frigid and calculated lie.” Imagine, said Kipling, that man’s “wonder and delight . . . when he found that the first lie overwhelmingly outdid every effect of his old mud-and-grass camouflages with no expenditure of energy!”

It remained thus in the early decades of the twentieth century (as it does in the twenty-first) as man sought to make life simpler and easier through lies and deception, notwithstanding, said Kipling, the axiom quoted by Shakespeare’s Fool in Twelth Night “That that is, is,” and “That that is not, isn’t.” Kipling acknowledged that in his youth when he “wished to claim . . . [my] independence and to express myself according to the latest lights of my age . . ., it was disheartening to be told that I could not expect to be clothed, fed, taught, amused, and comforted . . . by others, and at the same time to practice towards them a savage and thorny independence.”

Kipling goes on to imagine the primitive man who “desired, above everything, to escape for a while from the sight and sound and smell of his Tribe.” The one truth he knew for certain was “that if he did not provide himself with rations in advance, for his proposed excursion away from the Tribe, he would surely starve.” Without providing for himself in advance “he must stay with his Tribe.” “He may tell himself and his friends what splendid things he would do were he his own master, but as his Tribe goes so must he go . . . . When and as it lies, so must he lie. Its people must be his people, and its God must be his God.”

“Some men may accept this dispensation,” said Kipling, and “some may question it.” It was to those among the young men of St. Andrews who questioned this loss of independence to whom Kipling spoke.

Kipling, who could not have imagined the dependence—the lack of independence—that affects millions of twenty-first century Americans, nonetheless cautioned the students of St. Andrews that “the power of the Tribe over the individual has become more extended, particular, pontifical, and . . . impertinent” and that “nowadays, to own oneself in any decent measure, one has to run counter to a gospel, and to fight against its atmosphere.”

But he suggested that as Scots they were blessed by a history and culture “of being broken by birth, custom, precept and example to doing without things.” He said, “Men in any walk of life who have been taught not to waste or muddle material under their hand are less given to muddle or mishandle moral, intellectual, and emotional issues than men whose wastage has never been checked, or who look to have their wastage made good by others.”

Kipling went on to suggest what might be necessary for the young scholars of St. Andrews to implement a “policy of one’s independence,” including “drinks that one does not too continuously take; . . . maidens in whom one does not too extravagantly rejoice; . . . entertainments that one does not too systematically attend . . . [and] work undertaken . . . when one would infinitely rather rest or play.”

“No one regrets . . . more than I,” said Kipling, “that these should be the terms of the policy. It would better suit the spirit of the age if personal independence could be guaranteed for all by some form of co-ordinated action combined with public assistance and so forth.” But it is not to be. “Unfortunately,” said Kipling, “there are still a few things in this world that a man must manage for himself: his own independence is one of them.”

Although throughout his 1923 address Kipling reiterated that the yearning to own one’s self is rooted in man (and today Kipling would most certainly say woman, even when speaking only to men) from his beginnings in the tree-tops, he also recognized that some men do not yearn for independence. Certainly that appears to be the case in America today, with generations not blessed by exposure to the abstemious traditions of the Scots, but rather burdened by a multi-generational culture of dependence.

Kipling said he was speaking only to those who aspired to independence, though one suspects he was not meaning to preach solely to the choir—that he really sought to persuade those deluded by the promises of dependence. Sadly, in twenty-first century America (and Scotland), those who do not aspire to independence are a far larger portion of the population than in Kipling’s time. While public support systems crumble around them, they are comforted in their dependency by lies about their future prospects, by those who insist that it takes a village to accomplish anything, and by a president who, in an unguarded moment, insisted that America’s entrepreneurs owe their successes to the foresight and support of those who govern.

Rudyard Kipling lives on in the annals of English literature. Children, if they are so fortunate as to be introduced to them, still delight in his Jungle Book and Just So Stories. But those same children everywhere are destined for dependence if their parents do not heed Kipling’s appeal to independence. Of the Scottish precursors of the men of St. Andrews to whom Kipling spoke in 1923, he said this: “Those thrifty souls must have been a narrow and an anfractuous breed to handle; but, by their God, in whose Word they walked, they owned themselves! And their ownership was based upon the truth that if you have not your own rations you must feed out of your Tribe’s hands—with all that that implies.”

If America is to prevent the looming disaster of unsustainable dependency, we must revive the spirit of independence among at least some who have become dependent. Otherwise we have little prospect of restoring to the land of liberty a passion for liberty. We must, as Kipling said, let every herring hang by its own head.