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de CLEYRE, Voltairine. The Dominant Idea
Article published on 12 September 2009
last modification on 25 April 2015

by r-c.
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New York : Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1910. 16 p. ; 19 cm.


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ON EVERYTHING that lives, if one looks searchingly, is
limned the shadow line of an idea --- an idea, dead or
living, sometimes stronger when dead, with rigid,
unswerving lines that mark the living embodiment with the
stern immobile cast of the non-living. Daily we move
among these unyielding shadows, less pierceable, more
enduring than granite, with the blackness of ages in them,
dominating living, changing bodies, with dead, unchanging
souls. And we meet, also, living souls dominating dying
bodies – living ideas regnant over decay and death. Do not
imagine that I speak of human life alone. The stamp of
persistent or of shifting Will is visible in the grass-blade
rooted in its clod of earth, as in the gossamer web of being
that floats and swims far over our heads in the free world of

Regnant ideas, everywhere! Did you ever see a dead vine
bloom? I have seen it. Last summer I trained some
morning-glory vines up over a second story balcony; and
every day they blew and curled in the wind, their white,
purple-dashed faces winking at the sun, radiant with
climbing life. Higher every day the green heads crept,
carrying their train of spreading fans waving before the sunseeking
blossoms. Then all at once some mischance
happened, some cut worm or some mischievous child tore
one vine off below, the finest and most ambitious one, of
course. In a few hours the leaves hung limp, the sappy stem
wilted and began to wither; in a day it was dead, --- all but
the top which still clung longingly to its support, with
bright head lifted. I mourned a little for the buds that could
never open now, and tied that proud vine whose work in the
world was lost. But the next night there was a storm, a
heavy, driving storm, with beating rain and blinding
lightning. I rose to watch the flashes, and lo! the wonder of
the world! In the blackness of the mid-NIGHT, in the fury
of wind and rain, the dead vine had flowered. Five white,
moon-faced blossoms blew gaily round the skeleton vine,
shining back triumphant at the red lightning. I gazed at
them in dumb wonder. Dear, dead vine, whose will had
been so strong to bloom, that in the hour of its sudden cutoff
from the feeding earth, it sent the last sap to its
blossoms; and, not waiting for the morning, brought them
forth in storm and flash, as white night-glories, which
should have been the children of the sun.

In the daylight we all came to look at the wonder,
marveling much, and saying, "Surely these must be the
last." But every day for three days the dead vine bloomed;
and even a week after, when every leaf was dry and brown,
and so thin you could see through it, one last bud, dwarfed,
weak, a very baby of a blossom, but still white and delicate,
with five purple flecks, like those on the live vine beside it,
opened and waved at the stars, and waited for the early sun.
Over death and decay the Dominant Idea smiled: the vine
was in the world to bloom, to bear white trumpet blossoms
dashed with purple; and it held its will beyond death.

The vine was in the world to bloom

Our modern teaching is, that ideas are but attendant
phenomena, impotent to determine the actions or relations
of life, as the image in the glass which should say to the
body it reflects: "I shall shape thee." In truth we know that
directly the body goes from before the mirror, the transient
image is nothingness; but the real body has its being to live,
and will live it, heedless of vanished phantoms of itself, in
response to the ever-shifting pressure of things without it.
It is thus that the so-called Materialist Conception of
History, the modern Socialists, and a positive majority of
Anarchists would have us look upon the world of ideas, –
shifting, unreal reflections, having naught to do in the
determination of Man’s life, but so many mirror
appearances of certain material relations, wholly powerless
to act upon the course of material things. Mind to them is in
itself a blank mirror, though in fact never wholly blank,
because always facing the reality of the material and bound
to reflect some shadow. To-day I am somebody, to-morrow
somebody else, if the scenes have shifted; my Ego is a
gibbering phantom, pirouetting in the glass, gesticulating,
transforming, hourly or momentarily, gleaming with the
phosphor light of a deceptive unreality, melting like the
mist upon the hills. Rocks, fields, woods, streams, houses,
goods, flesh, blood, bone, sinew, --- these are realities, with
definite parts to play, with essential characters that abide
under all changes; but my Ego does not abide; it is
manufactured afresh with every change of these.

I think this unqualified determinism of the material is a
great and lamentable error in our modern progressive
movement; and while I believe it was a wholesome antidote
to the long-continued blunder of Middle Age theology, viz.,
that Mind was an utterly irresponsible entity making laws
of its own after the manner of an Absolute Emperor,
without logic, sequence, or relation, ruler over matter, and
its own supreme determinant, not excepting God (who was
himself the same sort of a mind writ large) --- while I do
believe that the modern re-conception of Materialism has
done a wholesome thing in pricking the bubble of such
conceit and restoring man and his "soul" to its "place in
nature," I nevertheless believe that to this also there is a
limit; and that the absolute sway of Matter is quite as
mischievous an error as the unrelated nature of Mind; even
that in its direct action upon personal conduct, it has the
more ill effect of the two. For if the doctrine of free-will has
raised up fanatics and persecutors, who, assuming that men
may be good under all conditions if they merely wish to be
so, have sought to persuade other men’s wills with threats,
fines, imprisonments, torture, the spike, the wheel, the axe,
the fagot, in order to make them good and save them
against their obdurate wills; if the doctrine of Spiritualism,
the soul supreme, has done this, the doctrine of
Materialistic Determinism has produced shifting, selfexcusing,
worthless, parasitical characters, who are this
now and that at some other time, and anything and nothing
upon principle. "My conditions have made me so, they cry,
and there is no more to be said; poor mirror-ghosts! how
could they help it! To be sure, the influence of such a
character rarely reaches so far as that of the principled
persecutor; but for every one of the latter, there are a
hundred of these easy, doughy characters, who will fit any
baking tin, to whom determinist self-excusing appeals; so
the balance of evil between the two doctrines is about

What we need is a true appraisement of the power and rôle
of the Idea. I do not think I am able to give such a true
appraisement, I do not think that any one – even much
greater intellects than mine – will be able to do it for a
long time to come. But I am at least able to suggest it, to
show its necessity, to give a rude approximation of it.
And first, against the accepted formula of modern
Materialism, "Men are what circumstances make them," I
set the opposing declaration, "Circumstances are what men
make them"; and I contend that both these things are true
up to the point where the combating powers are equalized,
or one is overthrown. In other words, my conception of
mind, or character, is not that it is a powerless reflection of
a momentary condition of stuff and form, but an active
modifying agent, reacting on its environment and
transforming circumstances, sometimes slightly, sometimes
greatly, sometimes, though not often, entirely.

All over the kingdom of life, I have said, one may see
dominant ideas working, if one but trains his eyes to look
for them and recognize them. In the human world there
have been many dominant ideas. I cannot conceive that
ever, at any time, the struggle of the body before
dissolution can have been aught but agony. If the reasoning
that insecurity of conditions, the expectation of suffering,
are circumstances which make the soul of man uneasy,
shrinking, timid, what answer will you give to the challenge
of old Ragnar Lodbrog, to that triumphant death-song
hurled out, not by one cast to his death in the heat of battle,
but under slow prison torture, bitten by serpents, and yet
singing: "The goddesses of death invite me away—now end
I my song. The hours of my life are run out. I shall smile
when I die"? Nor can it be said that this is an exceptional
instance, not to be accounted for by the usual operation of
general law, for old King Lodbrog the Skalder did only
what his fathers did, and his sons and his friends and his
enemies, through long generations; they set the force of a
dominant idea, the idea of the super ascendant ego, against
the force of torture and of death, ending life as they wished
to end it, with a smile on their lips. But a few years ago, did
we not read how the helpless Kaffirs, victimized by the
English for the contumacy of the Boers, having been forced
to dig the trenches wherein for pleasant sport they were to
be shot, were lined up on the edge, and seeing death facing
them, began to chant barbaric strains of triumph, smiling as
they fell? Let us admit that such exultant defiance was
owing to ignorance, to primitive beliefs in gods and
hereafters; but let us admit also that it shows the power of
an idea dominant.

Everywhere in the shells of dead societies, as in the shells
of the sea-slime, we shall see the force of purposive action,
of intent within holding its purpose against obstacles

Everywhere in the shells of dead societies, as in the shells
of the sea-slime, we shall see the force of purposive action

I think there is no one in the world who can look upon the
steadfast, far-staring face of an Egyptian carving, or read a
description of Egypt’s monuments, or gaze upon the
mummied clay of its old dead men, without feeling that the
dominant idea of that people in that age was to be enduring
and to work enduring things, with the immobility of their
great still sky upon them and the stare of the desert in them.
One must feel that whatever other ideas animated them, and
expressed themselves in their lives, this was the dominant
idea. That which was must remain, no matter at what cost,
even if it were to break the ever-lasting hills: an idea which
made the live humanity beneath it, born and nurtured in the
corns of caste, groan and writhe and gnaw its bandages, till
in the fullness of time it passed away: and still the granite
mould of it stares with empty eyes out across the world, the
stern old memory of the Thing-that-was.

I think no one can look upon the marbles wherein Greek
genius wrought the figuring of its soul without feeling an
apprehension that the things are going to leap and fly; that
in a moment one is like to be set upon by heroes with spears
in their hands, by serpents that will coil around him; to be
trodden by horses that may trample and flee; to be smitten
by these gods that have as little of the idea of stone in them
as a dragon-fly, one instant poised upon a wind-swayed
petal edge. I think no one can look upon them without
realizing at once that those figures came out of the boil of
life; they seem like rising bubbles about to float into the air,
but beneath them other bubbles rising, and others, and
others, --- there will be no end of it. When one’s eyes are
upon one group, one feels that behind one, perhaps, a figure
is tiptoeing to seize the darts of the air and hurl them on
one’s head; one must keep whirling to face the miracle that
appears about to be wrought --- stone leaping! And this
though nearly every one is minus some of the glory the old
Greek wrought into it so long ago; even the broken stumps
of arms and legs live. And the dominant idea is Activity,
and the beauty and strength of it. Change, swift, evercircling
Change! The making of things and the casting of
them away, as children cast away their toys, not interested
that these shall endure, so that they themselves realize
incessant activity. Full of creative power what matter if the
creature perished. So there was an endless procession of
changing shapes in their schools, their philosophies their
dramas, their poems, till at last it wore itself to death. And
the marvel passed away from the world. But still their
marbles live to show what manner of thoughts dominated

And if we wish to, know what master-thought ruled the
lives of men when the mediæval period had had time to
ripen it, one has only at this day to stray into some quaint,
out-of-the-way English village, where a strong old towered
Church yet stands in the midst of little straw-thatched
cottages, like a brooding mother-hen surrounded by her
chickens. Everywhere the greatening of God and the
lessening of Man: the Church so looming, the home so
little. The search for the spirit, for the enduring thing (not
the poor endurance of granite which in the ages crumbles,
but the eternal), the eternal, --- and contempt for the body
which perishes, manifest in studied uncleanliness, in
mortifications of the flesh, as if the spirit should have spat
its scorn upon it.

Such was the dominant idea of that middle age which has
been too much cursed by modernists. For the men who built
the castles and the cathedrals, were men of mighty works,
though they made no books, and though their souls spread
crippled wings, because of their very endeavors to soar too
high. The spirit of voluntary subordination for the
accomplishment of a great work, which proclaimed the
aspiration of the common soul, --- that was the spirit
wrought into the cathedral stones; and it is not wholly to be

In waking dream, when the shadow-shapes of world-ideas
swim before the vision, one sees the Middle-Age Soul an
ill-contorted, half-formless thing, with dragon wings and a
great, dark, tense face, strained sunward with blind eyes.
If now we look around us to see what idea dominates our
own civilization, I do not know that it is even as attractive
as this piteous monster of the old darkness. The relativity of
things has altered: Man has risen and God bas descended.
The modern village has better homes and less pretentious
churches. Also, the conception of dirt and disease as muchsought
afflictions, the patient suffering of which is a meet
offering to win God’s pardon, has given place to the
emphatic promulgation of cleanliness. We have Public
School nurses notifying parents that "pediculosis capitis" is
a very contagious and unpleasant disease; we have cancer
associations gathering up such cancers as have attached
themselves to impecunious persons, and carefully
experimenting with a view to cleaning them out of the
human race; we have tuberculosis societies attempting the
Herculean labor of clearing the Aegean stables of our
modern factories of the deadly bacillus, and they have got
as far as spittoons with water in them in some factories; and
others, and others, and others, which while not yet
overwhelmingly successful in their avowed purposes are
evidence sufficient that humanity no longer seeks dirt as a
means of grace. We laugh at those old superstitions and talk
much about exact experimental knowledge. We endeavor to
galvanize the Greek corpse, and pretend that we enjoy
physical culture. We dabble in many things; but the one
great real idea of our age, not copied from any other, not
pretended, not raised to life by any conjuration, is the Much
Making of Things, --- not the making of beautiful things,
not the joy of spending living energy in creative work;
rather the shameless, merciless driving and over-driving,
wasting and draining of the last lit of energy, only to
produce heaps and heaps of things, --- things ugly, things
harmful, things useless, and at the best largely unnecessary.
To what end are they produced? Mostly the producer does
not know; still less does he care. But he is possessed with
the idea that he must do it, every one is doing it, and every
year the making of things goes on more and faster; there are
mountain ranges of things made and making, and still men
go about desperately seeking to increase the list of created
things, to start fresh heaps and to add to the existing heaps.
And with what agony of body, under what stress and strain
of danger and fear of danger, with what mutilations and
maimings and lamings they struggle on, dashing themselves
out against these rocks of wealth! Verily, if the vision of the
Mediæval Soul is painful in its blind staring and pathetic
striving, grotesque in its senseless tortures, the Soul of the
Modern is most amazing with its restless, nervous eyes,
ever searching the corners of the universe, its restless,
nervous hands ever reaching and grasping for some useless

And certainly the presence of things in abundance, things
empty and things vulgar and things absurd, as well as things
convenient and useful, has produced the desire for the
possession of things, the exaltation of the possession of
things. Go through the business street of any city, where the
tilted edges of the strata of things are exposed to gaze, and
look at the faces of the people as they pass, --- not at the
hungry and smitten ones who fringe the sidewalks and plain
dolefully for alms, but at the crowd, --- and see what idea is
written on their faces. On those of the women, from the
ladies of the horse-shows to the shop girls out of the
factory, there is a sickening vanity, a consciousness of their
clothes, as of some jackdaw in borrowed feathers. Look for
the pride and glory of the free, strong, beautiful body, lithemoving
and powerful. You will not see it. You will see
mincing steps, bodies tilted to show the cut of a skirt,
simpering, smirking faces, with eyes cast about seeking
admiration for the gigantic bow of ribbon in the
overdressed hair. In the caustic words of an acquaintance,
to whom I once said, as we walked, "Look at the amount of
vanity on all these women’s faces," "No: look at the little bit
of womanhood showing out of all that vanity!"

And on the faces of the men, coarseness! Coarse desires for
coarse things, and lots of them: the stamp is set so
unmistakably that "the wayfarer though a fool need not err
therein." Even the frightful anxiety and restlessness
begotten of the creation of all this, is less distasteful than
the abominable expression of lust for the things created.
Such is the dominant idea of the western world, at least in
these our days. You may see it wherever you look,
impressed plainly on things and on men; very like if you
look in the glass, you will see it there. And if some
archaeologist of a long future shall some day unbury the
bones of our civilization, where ashes or flood shall have
entombed it, he will see this frightful idea stamped on the
factory walls he shall uncover, with their rows and rows of
square light-holes, their tons upon tons of toothed steel,
grinning out of the skull of this our life; its acres of silk and
velvet, its square miles of tinsel and shoddy. No glorious
marbles of nymphs and fawns, whose dead images are yet
so sweet that one might wish to kiss them still; no majestic
figures of winged horses, with men’s faces and lions’ paws
casting their colossal symbolism in a mighty spell forward
upon Time, as those old stone chimeras of Babylon yet do;
but meaningless iron giants, of wheels and teeth, whose
secret is forgotten, but whose business was to grind men
tip, and spit them out as housefuls of woven stuffs, bazaars
of trash, wherethrough other men might wade. The statues
he shall find will bear no trace of mythic dream or mystic
symbol; they will be statues of merchants and ironmasters
and militia-men, in tailored coats and pantaloons and proper
hats and shoes.

But the dominant idea of the age and land does not
necessarily mean the dominant idea of any single life. I
doubt not that in those long gone days, far away by the
banks of the still Nile, in the abiding shadow of the
pyramids, under the heavy burden of other men’s stolidity,
there went to and fro restless, active, rebel souls who hated
all that the ancient society stood for, and with burning
hearts sought to overthrow it.

I am sure that in the midst of all the agile Greek intellect
created, there were those who went about with downbent
eyes, caring nothing for it all, seeking some higher
revelation, willing to abandon the joys of life, so that they
drew near to some distant, unknown perfection their fellows
knew not of. I am certain that in the dark ages, when most
men prayed and cowered, and beat and bruised themselves,
and sought afflictions, like that St. Teresa who still, "Let
me suffer, or die," there were some, many, who looked on
the world as a chance jest, who despised or pitied their
ignorant comrades, and tried to compel the answers of the
universe to their questionings, by the patient, quiet
searching which came to be Modern Science. I am sure
there were hundreds thousands of them, of whom we have
never heard.

And now, to-day, though the Society about us is dominated
by Thing-Worship, and will stand so marked for all time,
that is no reason any single soul should be. Because the one
thing seemingly worth doing to my neighbor, to all my
neighbors, is to pursue dollars, that is no reason I should
pursue dollars. Because my neighbors conceive they need
an inordinate heap of carpets, furniture, clocks, china, glass,
tapestries, mirrors, clothes, jewels and servants to care for
them, and detectives to, keep an eye on the servants, judges
to try the thieves, and politicians to appoint the judges, jails
to punish the culprits, and wardens to watch in the jails, and
tax collectors to gather support for the wardens, and fees for
the tax collectors, and strong houses to hold the fees, so that
none but the guardians thereof can make off with them, ---
and therefore, to keep this host of parasites, need other men
to work for them, and make the fees; because my neighbors
want all this, is that any reason I should devote myself to
such abarren folly? and bow my neck to serve to keep up
the gaudy show?

Must we, because the Middle Age was dark and blind and
brutal, throw away the one good thing it wrought into the
fibre of Man, that the inside of a human being was worth
more than the outside? that to conceive a higher thing than
oneself and live toward that is the only way of living
worthily? The goal strived for should, and must, be a very
different one from that which led the mediæval fanatics to
despise the body and belabor it with hourly crucifixions.
But one can recognize the claims and the importance of the
body without therefore sacrificing truth, honor, simplicity,
and faith, to the vulgar gauds of body-service, whose very
decorations debase the thing they might be supposed to

I have said before that the doctrine that men are nothing and
circumstances all, has been, and is, the bane of our modern
social reform movements.

Our youth, themselves animated by the spirit of the old
teachers who believed in the supremacy of ideas, even in
the very hour of throwing away that teaching, look with
burning eyes to the social East, and believe that wonders of
revolution are soon to be accomplished. In their enthusiasm
they foreread the gospel of Circumstances to mean that very
soon the pressure of material development must break
down the social system --- they give the rotten thing but a
few years to last; and then, they themselves shall witness
the transformation, partake in its joys. The few years pass
away and nothing happens; enthusiasm cools. Behold these
same idealists then, successful business men, professionals,
property owners, money leaders, creeping into the social
ranks they once despised, pitifully, contemptibly, at the
skirts of some impecunious personage to whom they have
lent money, or done some professional service gratis;
behold them lying, cheating, tricking, flattering, buying and
selling themselves for any frippery, any cheap little
pretense. The Dominant Social Idea has seized them, their
lives are swallowed up in it; and when you ask the reason
why, they tell you that Circumstances compelled them so to
do. If you quote their lies to them, they smile with calm
complacency, assure you that when Circumstances demand
lies, lies are a great deal better than truth; that tricks are
sometimes more effective than honest dealing; that
flattering and duping do not matter, if the end to be attained
is desirable; and that under existing "Circumstances" life
isn’t possible without all this; that it is going to be possible
whenever Circumstances have made truth-telling easier
than lying, but till then a man must look out for himself, by
all means. And so the cancer goes on rotting away the
moral fibre, and the man becomes a lump, a squash, a piece
of slippery slime taking all shapes and losing all shapes,
according to what particular hole or corner he wishes to
glide into, --- a disgusting embodiment of the moral
bankruptcy begotten by Thing-Worship.

Had he been dominated by a less material conception of
life, had his will not been rotted by the intellectual
reasoning of it out of its existence, by its acceptance of its
own nothingness, the unselfish aspirations of his earlier
years would have grown and strengthened by exercise and
habit; and his protest against the time might have been
enduringly written, and to some purpose.
Will it be said that the Pilgrim fathers did not hew, out of
the New England ice and granite, the idea which gathered
them together out of their scattered and obscure English
villages, and drove them in their frail ships aver the Atlantic
in midwinter, to cut their way against all opposing forces?
Were they not common men, subject to the operation of
common law? Will it be said that Circumstances aided
them? When death, disease, hunger, and cold had done their
worst, not one of those remaining was willing by an easy lie
to return to material comfort and the possibility of long

Had our modern social revolutionists the vigorous and
undaunted conception of their own powers that these had,
our social movements would not be such pitiful abortions, -
— core-rotten even before the outward flecks appear.
"Give a labor leader a political job, and the system becomes
all right," laugh our enemies; and they point mockingly to
Terence Powderly acid his like; and they quote John Burns,
who as soon as he went into Parliament declared: "The time
of the agitator is past; the time of the legislator has come."
"Let an Anarchist marry an heiress, and the country is safe,"
they sneer: --- and they have the right to sneer. But would
they have that right, could they have it, if our lives were not
in the first instance dominated by more insistent desires
than those we would fain have others think we hold most

It is the old story: "Aim at the stars, and you may hit the top
of the gatepost; but aim at the ground and you will hit the

It is not to be supposed that any one will attain to the full
realization of what he purposes, even when those purposes
do not involve united action with others; he will fall short;
he will in some measure be overcome by contending or
inert opposition. But something he will attain, if he
continues to aim high.

What, then, would I have? you ask. I would have men
invest themselves with the dignity of an aim higher than the
chase for wealth; choose a thing to do in life outside of the
making of things, and keep it in mind, --- not for a day, nor
a year, but for a life-time. And then keep faith with
themselves! Not be a light-o’-love, to-day professing this
and to-morrow that, and easily reading oneself out of both
whenever it becomes convenient; not advocating a thing today
and to-morrow kissing its enemies’ sleeve, with that
weak, coward cry in the mouth, "Circumstances make me."
Take a good look into yourself, and if you love Things and
the power and the plenitude of Things better than you love
your own dignity, human dignity, Oh, say so, say so! Say it
to yourself, and abide by it. But do not blow hot and cold in
one breath. Do not try to be a social reformer and a
respected possessor of Things at the same time. Do not
preach the straight and narrow way while going joyously
upon the wide one. Preach the wide one, or do not preach at
all; but do not fool yourself by saying you would like to
help usher in a free society, but you cannot sacrifice an
armchair for it. Say honestly, "I love arm-chairs better than
free men, and pursue them because I choose; not because
circumstances make me. I love hats, large, large hats, with
many feathers and great bows; and I would rather have
those hats than trouble myself about social dreams that will
never be accomplished in my day. The world worships hats,
and I wish to worship with them."

But if you choose the liberty and pride and strength of the
single soul, and the free fraternization of men, as the
purpose which your life is to make manifest then do not sell
it for tinsel. Think that your soul is strong and will hold its
way; and slowly, through bitter struggle perhaps the
strength will grow. And the foregoing of possessions for
which others barter the last possibility of freedom will
become easy.

At the end of life you may close your eyes saying: "I have
not been dominated by the Dominant Idea of my Age; I
have chosen mine own allegiance, and served it. I have
proved by a lifetime that there is that in man which saves
him from the absolute tyranny of Circumstance, which in
the end conquers and remoulds Circumstance, the immortal
fire of Individual Will, which is the salvation of the

Let us have Men, Men who will say a word to their souls
and keep it --- keep it not when it is easy, but keep it when
it is hard --- keep it when the storm roars and there is a
white-streaked sky and blue thunder before, and one’s eyes
are blinded and one’s ears deafened with the war of
opposing things; and keep it under the long leaden sky and
the gray dreariness that never lifts. Hold unto the last: that
is what it means to have a Dominant Idea, which
Circumstance cannot break. And such men make and
unmake Circumstance.

Voltairine de Cleyre

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