Chapter 5: HOW HUMAN IS MAN?
Be not under any Brutal Metempsychosis while thou livest and walkest about erectly under the scheme of Man. -
- Sir Thomas Browne
Over a hundred years ago a Scandinavian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, made a profound observation about the future. Kierkegaard's remark is of such great, though hidden, importance to our subject that I shall begin by quoting his words. "He who fights the future," remarked the philosopher, "has a dangerous enemy. The future is not, it borrows its strength from the man himself, and when it has tricked him out of this, then it appears outside of him as the enemy he must meet."
We in the western world have rushed eagerly to embrace the future -- and in so doing we have provided that future with a strength it has derived from us and our endeavors. Now, stunned, puzzled and dismayed, we try to withdraw from the embrace, not of a necessary tomorrow, but of that future which we have invited and of which, at last, we have grown perceptibly afraid. In a sudden horror we discover that the years now rushing upon us have drained our moral resources and have taken shape out of our own impotence. At this moment, if we possess even a modicum of reflective insight, we will give heed to Kierkegaard's concluding wisdom: "Through the eternal," he enjoins us, "we can conquer the future."
The advice is cryptic; the hour late. Moreover, what have we to do with the eternal? Our age, we know, is littered with the wrecks of war, of outworn philosophies, of broken faiths. We profess little but the new and study only change.
Three hundred years have passed since Galileo, with the telescope, opened the enormous vista of the night. In those three centuries the phenomenal world, previously explored with the unaided senses, has undergone tremendous alteration in our minds. A misty light so remote as to be scarcely sensed by the unaided eye has become a galaxy. Under the microscope the previously unseen has become a cosmos of both beautiful and repugnant life, while the tissues of the body have been resolved into a cellular hierarchy whose constituents mysteriously produce the human personality.
Similarly, the time dimension, by the use of other sensory extensions and the close calculations made possible by our improved knowledge of the elements, has been plumbed as never before, and even its dead, forgotten life has been made to yield remarkable secrets. The great stage, in other words, the world stage where the Elizabethans saw us strutting and mouthing our parts, has the skeletons of dead actors under the floor boards, and the dusty scenery of forgotten dramas lies abandoned in the wings. The idea necessarily comes home to us then with a sudden chill: What if we are not playing on the center stage? What if the Great Spectacle has no terminus and no meaning? What if there is no audience beyond the footlights, and the play, in spite of bold villains and posturing heroes, is a shabby repeat performance in an echoing vacuity? Man is a perceptive animal. He hates above all else to appear ridiculous. His explorations of reality in the course of just three hundred years have so enlarged his vision and reduced his ego that his tongue sometimes fumbles for the proper lines to speak, and he plays his part uncertainly, with one dubious eye cast upon the dark beyond the stage lights. He is beginning to feel alone and to hear nothing but echoes reverberating back.
It will do no harm then, if in this moment of hesitation we survey the history of our dilemma. Man's efforts to understand his predicament can be compassed in the simple mechanics of the theatre. We have examined the time allowed the play, the nature of the stage, and what appears to be the nature of the plot. All else is purely incidental to this drama, and it may well be that we can see our history in no other terms, being mentally structured to look within as well as without, and to be influenced within by what we consider the nature of the "without" to be. It is for this reason that the "without," and our modes of apprehending it, assume so pressing an importance. Nor is it fully possible to understand the human drama, the drama of the great stage, without a historical knowledge of how the characters have interpreted their parts in the play, and in doing so perhaps affected the nature of the plot itself.
This, in brief, epitomizes the role of the human mind in history. It has looked through many spectacles in the last several centuries, and each time the world has appeared real, and the plot has been played accordingly. Strange colorings have been given to reality and the colors have come mostly from within. As science extends itself, the colors, and through them the nature of reality, continue to change. The "within" and "without" are in some strange fashion intermingled. Perhaps, in a sense, the great play is actually a great magic, and we, the players, are a part of the illusion, making and transforming the plot as we go.
If the play has its magical aspect, however, there is an increasing malignancy about it. A great Russian novelist ventures to remark mildly that the human heart, rather than the state, is the final abode of goodness. He is immediately denounced by his colleagues as a heretic. In the West, psychological studies are made of human "rigidity," and although there is a dispassionate scientific air about them the suggestion lingers that the "normal" man should conform; that the deviant is pathological. The television networks seek the lowest denominator which will entrance their mass audience. There is a muted intimation that we can do without the kind of intellectual individualists who used to declaim along the edges of the American wilderness and who have left the world some highly explosive literature in the shape of Walden and Moby Dick. It is obvious that the whole of western ethic, whether Russian or American, is undergoing change, and that the change is increasingly toward conformity in exterior observance and, at the same time, toward confusion and uncertainty in deep personal relations. In our examination of this phenomenon there will emerge for us the meaning of Kierkegaard's faith in the eternal as the only way of achieving victory against the corrosive power of the human future.Part II
If we examine the living universe around us which was before man and may be after him, we find two ways in which that universe, with its inhabitants, differs from the world of man: first, it is essentially a stable universe; second, its inhabitants are intensely concentrated upon their environment. They respond to it totally, and without it, or rather when they relax from it, they merely sleep. They reflect their environment but they do not alter it. In Browning's words, "It has them, not they it."
Life, as manifested through its instincts, demands a security guarantee from nature that is largely forthcoming. All the release mechanisms, the instinctive shorthand methods by which nature provides for organisms too simple to comprehend their environment, are based upon this guarantee. The inorganic world could, and does, exist in a kind of chaos, but before life can peep forth, even as a flower, or a stick insect, or a beetle, it has to have some kind of unofficial assurance of nature's stability, just as we have read that stability of forces in the ripples impressed in stone, or the rain marks on a long-vanished beach, or the unchanging laws of light in the eye of a four-hundred-million-year-old trilobite.
The nineteenth century was amazed when it discovered these things, but wasps and migratory birds were not. They had an old contract, an old promise, never broken till man began to interfere with things, that nature, in degree, is steadfast and continuous. Her laws do not deviate, nor the seasons come and go too violently. There is change, but throughout the past life alters with the slow pace of geological epochs. Calcium, iron, phosphorus, could exist in the jumbled world of the inorganic without the certainties that life demands. Taken up into a living system, however, being that system, they must, in a sense, have knowledge of the future. Tomorrow's rain may be important, or tomorrow's wind or sun. Life, in contrast to the inorganic, is historic in a new way. It reflects the past, but must also expect something of the future. It has nature's promise -- a guarantee that has not been broken in three billion years -- that the universe has this queer rationality and "expectedness" about it. "Whatever interrupts the even flow and luxurious monotony of organic life," wrote Santayana, "is odious to the primeval animal."
This is a true observation, because on the more simple levels of life, monotony is a necessity for survival. The life in pond and thicket is not equipped for the storms that shake the human world. Its small domain is frequently confined to a splinter of sunlight, or the hole under a root. What life does under such circumstances, how it meets the precarious future (for even here the future can be precarious), is written into its substance by the obscure mechanisms of nature. The snail recoils into his house, the dissembling caterpillar who does not know he dissembles, thrusts stiffly, like a budding twig, from his branch. The enemy is known, the contingency prepared for. But still the dreaming comes from below, from somewhere in the molecular substance. It is as if nature in a thousand forms played games against herself, but the games were each one known, the rules ancient and observed.
It is with the coming of man that a vast hole seems to open in nature, a vast black whirlpool spinning faster and faster, consuming flesh, stones, soil, minerals, sucking down the lightning, wrenching power from the atom, until the ancient sounds of nature are drowned in the cacophony of something which is no longer nature, something instead which is loose and knocking at the world's heart, something demonic and no longer planned -- escaped, it may be -- spewed out of nature, contending in a final giant's game against its master.
Yet the coming of man was quiet enough. Even after he arrived, even after his strange retarded youth had given him the brain which opened up to him the dimensions of time and space, he walked softly. If, as was true, he had sloughed instinct away for a new interior world of consciousness, he did something which at the same time revealed his continued need for the stability which had preserved his ancestors. Scarcely had he stepped across the border of the old instinctive world when he began to create the world of custom. He was using reason, his new attribute, to remake, in another fashion, a substitute for the lost instinctive world of nature. He was, in fact, creating another nature, a new source of stability for his conflicting erratic reason. Custom became fixed: order, the new order imposed by cultural discipline, became the "nature" of human society. Custom directed the vagaries of the will. Among the fixed institutional bonds of society man found once more the security of the animal. He moved in a patient renewed orbit with the seasons. His life was directed, the gods had ordained it so. In some parts of the world this long twilight, half in and half out of nature, has persisted into the present. Viewed over a wide domain of history this cultural edifice, though somewhat less stable than the natural world, has yet appeared a fair substitute -- a structure, like nature, reasonably secure. But the security in the end was to prove an illusion. It was in the West that the whirlpool began to spin. Ironically, it began in the search for the earthly Paradise.
The medieval world was limited in time. It was a stage upon which the great drama of the human Fall and Redemption was being played out. Since the position in time of the medieval culture fell late in this drama, man's gaze was not centered scientifically upon the events of an earth destined soon to vanish. The ranks of society, even objects themselves, were Platonic reflections from eternity. They were as unalterable as the divine Empyrean world behind them. Life was directed and fixed from above. So far as the Christian world of the West was concerned, man was locked in an unchanging social structure well nigh as firm as nature. The earth was the center of divine attention. The ingenuity of intellectual men was turned almost exclusively upon theological problems.
As the medieval culture began to wane toward its close, men turned their curiosity upon the world around them. The era of the great voyages, of the breaking through barriers, had begun. Indeed, there is evidence that among the motivations of those same voyagers, dreams of the recovery of the earthly Paradise were legion. The legendary Garden of Eden was thought to be still in existence. There were stories that in this or that far land, behind cloud banks or over mountains, the abandoned Garden still survived. There were speculations that through one of those four great rivers which were supposed to flow from the Garden, the way back might still be found. Perhaps the angel with the sword might still be waiting at the weed-grown gateway, warning men away; nevertheless, the idea of that haven lingered wistfully in the minds of captains in whom the beliefs of the Middle Ages had not quite perished.
There was, however, another, a more symbolic road into the Garden. It was first glimpsed and the way to its discovery charted by Francis Bacon. With that act, though he did not intend it to be so, the philosopher had opened the doorway of the modern world. The paradise he sought, the dreams he dreamed, are now intermingled with the countdown on the latest model of the ICBM, or the radioactive cloud drifting downwind from a megaton explosion. Three centuries earlier, however, science had been Lord Bacon's road to the earthly Paradise. "Surely," he wrote in the Novum Organum, "it would be disgraceful if, while the regions of the material globe, that is, of the earth, of the sea, and of the stars -- have been in our times laid widely open and revealed, the intellectual globe should remain shut up within the narrow limits of the old discoveries."
Instead, Bacon chafed for another world than that of the restless voyagers. "I am now therefore to speak touching Hope," he rallied his audience, who believed, many of them, in a declining and decaying world. Much, if not all, that man lost in his ejection from the earthly Paradise might, Bacon thought, be regained by application, so long as the human intellect remained unimpaired. "Trial should be made," he contends in one famous passage, "whether the commerce between the mind of men and the nature of things ... might by any means be restored to its perfect and original condition, or if that may not be, yet reduced to a better condition than that in which it now is." To the task of raising up the new science he devoted himself as the bell ringer who "called the wits together."
Bacon was not blind to the dangers in his new philosophy. "Through the premature hurry of the understanding," he cautioned, "great dangers may be apprehended ... against which we ought even now to prepare." Out of the same fountain, he saw clearly, could pour the instruments of beneficence or death.
Bacon's warning went unheeded. The struggle between those forces he envisaged continues into the modern world. We have now reached the point where we must look deep into the whirlpool of the modern age. Whirlpool or flight, as Max Picard has called it, it is all one. The stability of nature on the planet -- that old and simple promise to the living, which is written in every sedimentary rock -- is threatened by nature's own product, man.
Not long ago a young man -- I hope not a forerunner of the coming race on the planet -- remarked to me with the colossal insensitivity of the new asphalt animal, "Why can't we just eventually kill off everything and live here by ourselves with more room? We'll be able to synthesize food pretty soon." It was his solution to the problem of overpopulation.
I had no response to make, for I saw suddenly that this man was in the world of the flight. For him there was no eternal, nature did not exist save as something to be crushed, and that second order of stability, the cultural world, was, for him, also ceasing to exist. If he meant what he said, pity had vanished, life was not sacred, and custom was a purely useless impediment from the past. There floated into my mind the penetrating statement of a modern critic and novelist, Wright Morris. "It is not fear of the bomb that paralyzes us," he writes, "not fear that man has no future. Rather, it is the nature of the future, not its extinction, that produces such foreboding in the artist. It is a numbing apprehension that such future as man has may dispense with art, with man as we now know him, and such as art has made him. The survival of men who are strangers to the nature of this conception is a more appalling thought than the extinction of the species."
There before me stood the new race in embryo. It was I who fled. There was no means of communication sufficient to call across the roaring cataract that lay between us, and down which this youth was already figuratively passing toward some doom I did not wish to see. Man's second rock of certitude, his cultural world, that had gotten him out of bed in the morning for many thousand years, that had taught him manners, how to love, and to see beauty, and how, when the time came, to die -- this cultural world was now dissolving even as it grew. The roar of jet aircraft, the ugly ostentation of badly designed automobiles, the clatter of the supermarkets could not lend stability nor reality to the world we face.
Before us is Bacon's road to Paradise after three hundred years. In the medieval world, man had felt God both as exterior lord above the stars, and as immanent in the human heart. He was both outside and within, the true hound of Heaven. All this alters as we enter modern times. Bacon's world to explore opens to infinity, but it is the world of the outside. Man's whole attention is shifted outward. Even if he looks within, it is largely with the eye of science, to examine what can be learned of the personality, or what excuses for its behavior can be found in the darker, ill-lit caverns of the brain.
The western scientific achievement, great though it is, has not concerned itself enough with the creation of better human beings, nor with self-discipline. It has concentrated instead upon things, and assumed that the good life would follow. Therefore it hungers for infinity. Outward in that infinity lies the Garden the sixteenth-century voyagers did not find. We no longer call it the Garden. We are sophisticated men. We call it, vaguely, "progress," because that word in itself implies the endless movement of pursuit. We have abandoned the past without realizing that without the past the pursued future has no meaning, that it leads, as Morris has anticipated, to the world of artless, dehumanized man.Part III
Some time ago there was encountered, in the litter of a vacant lot in a small American town, a fallen sign. This sign was intended to commemorate the names of local heroes who had fallen in the Second World War. But that war was over, and another had come in Korea. Probably the population of that entire town had turned over in the meantime. Tom and Joe and Isaac were events of the past, and the past of the modern world is short. The names of yesterday's heroes lay with yesterday's torn newspaper. They had served their purpose and were now forgotten.
This incident may serve to reveal the nature of what has happened, or seems to be happening, to our culture, to that world which science was to beautify and embellish. I do not say that science is responsible except in the sense that men are responsible, but men increasingly are the victims of what they themselves have created. To the student of human culture, the rise of science and its dominating role in our society presents a unique phenomenon.
Nothing like it occurs in antiquity, for in antiquity nature represented the divine. It was an object of worship. It contained mysteries. It was the mother. Today the phrase has disappeared. It is nature we shape, nature, without the softening application of the word mother, which under our control and guidance hurls the missile on its path. There has been no age in history like this one, and men are increasingly brushed aside who speak of the possibility of another road into the future.
Some time ago, in a magazine of considerable circulation, I spoke about the role of love in human society, and about pressing human problems which I felt, rightly or wrongly, would not be solved by the penetration of space. The response amazed me, in some instances, by its virulence. I was denounced for interfering with the colonization of other planets, and for corruption of the young. Most pathetically of all, several people wrote me letters in which they tried to prove, largely for their own satisfaction, that love did not exist, that parents abused and murdered their children and children their parents. They concentrated upon sparse incidents of pathological violence, and averted their eyes from the normal.
It was all too plain that these individuals were seeking rationalizations behind which they might hide from their own responsibilities. They were in the whirlpool, that much was evident. But so are we all. In 1914 the London Times editorialized confidently that no civilized nation would bomb open cities from the air. Today there is not a civilized nation on the face of the globe that does not take this aspect of warfare for granted. Technology demands it. In Kierkegaard's deadly future man strives, or rather ceases to strive, against himself.
But crime, moral deficiencies, inadequate ethical standards, we are prone to accept as part of the life of man. Why, in this respect, should we be regarded as unique? True, we have had Buchenwald and the Arctic slave camps, but the Romans had their circuses. It is just here, however, that the uniqueness enters in. After the passage of three hundred years from Bacon and his followers -- three hundred years on the road to the earthly Paradise -- there is a rising poison in the air. It crosses frontiers and follows the winds across the planet. It is man-made; no treaty of the powers has yet halted it.
Yet it is only a symbol, a token of that vast maelstrom which has caught up states and stone-age peoples equally with the modern world. It is the technological revolution, and it has brought three things to man which it has been impossible for him to do to himself previously.
First, it has brought a social environment altering so rapidly with technological change that personal adjustments to it are frequently not viable. The individual either becomes anxious and confused or, what is worse, develops a superficial philosophy intended to carry him over the surface of life with the least possible expenditure of himself. Never before in history has it been literally possible to have been born in one age and to die in another. Many of us are now living in an age quite different from the one into which we were born. The experience is not confined to a ride in a buggy, followed in later years by a ride in a Cadillac. Of far greater significance are the social patterns and ethical adjustments which have followed fast upon the alterations in living habits introduced by machines.
Second, much of man's attention is directed exteriorly upon the machines which now occupy most of his waking hours. He has less time alone than any man before him. In dictator-controlled countries he is harangued and stirred by propaganda projected upon him by machines to which he is forced to listen. In America he sits quiescent before the flickering screen in the living room while horsemen gallop across an American wilderness long vanished in the past. In the presence of so compelling an instrument, there is little opportunity in the evenings to explore his own thoughts or to participate in family living in the way that the man from the early part of the century remembers. For too many men, the exterior world with its mass-produced daydreams has become the conqueror. Where are the eager listeners who used to throng the lecture halls; where are the workingmen's intellectual clubs? This world has vanished into the whirlpool.
Third, this outward projection of attention, along with the rise of a science whose powers and creations seem awe-inspiringly remote, as if above both man and nature, has come dangerously close to bringing into existence a type of man who is not human. He no longer thinks in the old terms; he has ceased to have a conscience. He is an instrument of power. Because his mind is directed outward upon this power torn from nature, he does not realize that the moment such power is brought into the human domain it partakes of human freedom. It is no longer safely within nature; it has become violent, sharing in human ambivalence and moral uncertainty.
At the same time that this has occurred, the scientific worker has frequently denied personal responsibility for the way his discoveries are used. The scientist points to the evils of the statesmen's use of power. The statesmen shrug and remind the scientist that they are encumbered with monstrous forces that science has unleashed upon a totally unprepared public. But there are few men on either side of the Iron Curtain able to believe themselves in any sense personally responsible for this situation. Individual conscience lies too close to home, and is archaic. It is better, we subconsciously tell ourselves, to speak of inevitable forces beyond human control. When we reason thus, however, we lend powers to the whirlpool; we bring nearer the future which Kierkegaard saw, not as the necessary future, but one just as inevitable as man has made it.Part IV
We have now glimpsed, however briefly and inadequately, the fact that modern man is being swept along in a stream of things, giving rise to other things, at such a pace that no substantial ethic, no inward stability, has been achieved. Such stability as survives, such human courtesies as remain, are the remnants of an older Christian order. Daily they are attenuated. In the name of mass man, in the name of unionism, for example, we have seen violence done and rudeness justified. I will not argue the justice or injustice of particular strikes. I can only remark that the violence to which I refer has been the stupid, meaningless violence of the rootless, nonhuman members of the age that is close to us. It is the asphalt man who defiantly votes the convicted labor boss back into office and who says: "He gets me a bigger pay check. What do I care what he does?" This is a growing aspect of modern society that runs from teenage gangs to the corporation boards of amusement industries that deliberately plan the further debauchment of public taste.
It is, unfortunately, the "ethic" of groups, not of society. It cannot replace personal ethic or a sense of personal responsibility for society at large. It is, in reality, group selfishness, not ethics. In the words of Max Picard, "Spirit has been divided, fragmented; here is a spirit belonging to this and to that sociological group, each group having its own peculiar little spirit, exactly what one needs in the Flight, where, in order to flee more easily, one breaks the whole up into parts; and as always happens when one separates the part from the whole ... one magnifies the tiny part, making it ridiculously important, so that no one may notice that the tiny part is not the whole."
All over the world this fragmentation is taking place. Small nationalisms, as in Cyprus or Algiers, murder in the name of freedom. In America, child gangs battle in the streets. The group ethic as distinct from personal ethic is faceless and obscure. It is whatever its leaders choose it to mean; it destroys the innocent and justifies the act in terms of the future. In Russia this has been done on a colossal scale. The future is no more than the running of the whirlpool. It is not divinely ordained. It has been wrought by man in ignorance and folly. That folly has two faces; one is our secularized conception of progress; the other is the mass loss of personal ethic as distinguished from group ethic.
It would be idle to deny that progress has its root in the Christian ethic, or that history, viewed as progression toward a goal, as unique rather than cyclic, is also a product of Christian thinking. There is a sense in which one can say that man entered into history through Christianity, for as Berdyaev somewhere observes, it is this religion, par excellence, which took God out of nature and elevated man above nature. The struggle for the realization of the human soul, the attempt to lift it beyond its base origins, became, in the earlier Christian centuries, the major preoccupation of the Church.
When science developed, in the hands of Bacon and his followers, the struggle for progress ceased to be an interior struggle directed toward the good life in the soul of the individual. Instead, the enormous success of the experimental method focused attention upon the power which man could exert over nature. Now he found, through Bacon's road back to the Garden, that he could share once more in that fruit of the legendary tree. With the rise of industrial science, "progress" became the watchword of the age, but it was a secularized progress. It was the increasing whirlpool of goods, cannon, bodies and yielded-up souls that an outward concentration upon the mastery of material nature was sure to bring.
Let us admit at once that the interpretation of secular progress is two-sided. If this were not so, men would more easily recognize their dilemma. Science has brought remedies for physical pain and disease; it has opened out the far fields of the universe. Gross superstition and petty dogmatism have withered under its glance. It has supplied us with fruits unseen in nature, and given an opportunity, has told us dramatically of the paradise that might be ours if we could struggle free of ancient prejudices that still beset us. No man can afford to ignore this aspect of science, no man can evade those haunting visions.
It is the roar of the whirlpool, nonetheless, that breaks now most constantly upon our listening ears, increasingly instructing us upon the most important aspect of progress -- that which in secularizing the concept we have forgotten. Its sound marks the dangerous near-dissolution of man's second nature, custom. Ideas, heresies, run like wildfire and death over the crackling static of the air. They no longer pick their way slowly through the experience of generations. Tax burdens multiply and reach upward year by year as man pays for his engines of death and underwrites ever more wearily the cost of the "progress" to which this road has led him. There is no retreat. The great green forest that once surrounded us Americans and behind which we could seek refuge has been consumed.
And thus, though more symbolically, has it been everywhere for man. We have re-entered nature, not like a Greek shepherd on a hillside hearing joyfully the returning pipes of Pan, but rather as an evil and precocious animal who slinks home in the night with a few stolen powers. The serenity of the gods is not disturbed. They know well on whose head the final lightning will fall.
Progress secularized, progress which pursues only the next invention, progress which pulls thought out of the mind and replaces it with idle slogans, is not progress at all. It is a beckoning mirage in a desert over which stagger the generations of men. Because man, each individual man among us, possesses his own soul and by that light must live or perish, there is no way by which Utopias -- or the lost Garden itself -- can be brought out of the future and presented to man. Neither can he go forward to such a destiny. Since in the world of time every man lives but one life, it is in himself that he must search for the secret of the Garden. With the fading of religious emphasis and the growth of the torrent, modern man is confused. The tumult without has obscured those voices that still cry desperately to man from somewhere within his consciousness.Part V
One hundred years ago last autumn, Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species. Epic of science though it is, it was a great blow to man. Earlier, man had seen his world displaced from the center of space; he had seen the Empyrean heaven vanish to be replaced by a void filled only with the wandering dust of worlds; he had seen earthly time lengthen until man's duration within it was only a small whisper on the sidereal clock. Finally, now, he was to be taught that his trail ran backward until in some lost era it faded into the night-world of the beast. Because it is easier to look backward than to look forward, since the past is written in the rocks, this observation, too, was added to the whirlpool.
"I am an animal," man considered. It was a fair judgment, an outside judgment. Man went into the torrent along with the steel of the first ironclads and a new slogan, "the survival of the fittest." There would be one more human retreat when, in the twentieth century, human values themselves would fall under scrutiny and be judged relative, shifting and uncertain. It is the way of the torrent -- everything touched by it begins to circle without direction. All is relative, there is nothing fixed, and of guilt there can, of course, remain but little. Moral responsibility has difficulty in existing consistently beside the new scientific determinism.
I remarked at the beginning of this discussion that the "within," man's subjective nature, and the things that come to him from without often bear a striking relationship. Man cannot be long studied as an object without his cleverly altering his inner defenses. He thus becomes a very difficult creature with which to deal. Let me illustrate this concretely.
Not long ago, hoping to find relief from the duties of my office, I sought refuge with my books on a campus bench. In a little while there sidled up to me a red-faced derelict whose parboiled features spoke eloquently of his particular weakness. I was resolved to resist all blandishments for a handout.
"Mac," he said, "I'm out of a job. I need help."
I remained stonily indifferent.
"Sir," he repeated.
"Uh huh," I said, unwillingly looking up from my book.
"I'm an alcoholic."
"Oh," I said. There didn't seem to be anything else to say. You can't berate a man for what he's already confessed to you.
"I'm an alcoholic," he repeated. "You know what that means? I'm a sick man. Not giving me alcohol is ill-treating a sick man. I'm a sick man. I'm an alcoholic. I have to have a drink. I'm telling you honest. It's a disease. I'm an alcoholic. I can't help myself."
"Okay," I said, "you're an alcoholic." Grudgingly I contributed a quarter to his disease and his increasing degradation. But the words stayed in my head. "I can't help myself." Let us face it. In one disastrous sense, he was probably right. At least at this point. But where had the point been reached, and when had he developed this clever neo-modern, post-Freudian panhandling lingo? From what judicious purloining of psychiatric or social-work literature and lectures had come these useful phrases?
And he had chosen his subject well. At a glance he had seen from my book and spectacles that I was susceptible to this approach. I was immersed in the modern dilemma. I could have listened, gazing into his mottled face, without an emotion if he had spoken of home and mother. But he was an alcoholic. He knew it and he guessed that I might be a scientist. He had to be helped from the outside. It was not a moral problem. He was ill.
I settled uncomfortably into my book once more, but the phrase stayed with me, "I can't help myself." The clever reversal. The outside judgment turned back and put to dubious, unethical use by the man inside.
"I can't help myself." It is the final exteriorization of man's moral predicament, of his loss of authority over himself. It is the phrase that, above all others, tortures the social scientist. In it is truth, but in it also is a dreadful, contrived folly. It is society, a genuinely sick society, saying to its social scientists, as it says to its engineers and doctors: "Help me. I'm rotten with hate and ignorance that I won't give up, but you are the doctor; fix me." This, says society, is our duty. We are social scientists. Individuals, poor blighted specimens, cannot assume such responsibilities. "True, true," we mutter as we read the case histories. "Life is dreadful, and yet --"
Man on the inside is quick to accept scientific judgments and make use of them. He is conditioned to do this. This new judgment is an easy one; it deadens man's concern for himself. It makes the way into the whirlpool easier. In spite of our boasted vigor we wait for the next age to be brought to us by Madison Avenue and General Motors. We do not prepare to go there by means of the good inner life. We wait, and in the meantime it slowly becomes easier to mistake longer cars or brighter lights for progress. And yet --
Forty thousand years ago in the bleak uplands of southwestern Asia, a man, a Neanderthal man, once labeled by the Darwinian proponents of struggle as a ferocious ancestral beast -- a man whose face might cause you some slight uneasiness if he sat beside you -- a man of this sort existed with a fearful body handicap in that ice-age world. He had lost an arm. But still he lived and was cared for. Somebody, some group of human things, in a hard, violent and stony world, loved this maimed creature enough to cherish him.
And looking so, across the centuries and the millennia, toward the animal men of the past, one can see a faint light, like a patch of sunlight moving over the dark shadows on a forest floor. It shifts and widens, it winks out, it comes again, but it persists. It is the human spirit, the human soul, however transient, however faulty men may claim it to be. In its coming man had no part. It merely came, that curious light, and man, the animal, sought to be something that no animal had been before. Cruel he might be, vengeful he might be, but there had entered into his nature a curious wistful gentleness and courage. It seemed to have little to do with survival, for such men died over and over. They did not value life compared to what they saw in themselves -- that strange inner light which has come from no man knows where, and which was not made by us. It has followed us all the way from the age of ice, from the dark borders of the ancient forest into which our footprints vanish. It is in this that Kierkegaard glimpsed the eternal, the way of the heart, the way of love which is not of today, but is of the whole journey and may lead us at last to the end. Through this, he thought, the future may be conquered. Certainly it is true. For man may grow until he towers to the skies, but without this light he is nothing, and his place is nothing. Even as we try to deny the light, we know that it has made us, and what we are without it remains meaningless.
We have come a long road up from the darkness, and it well may be -- so brief, even so, is the human story -- that viewed in the light of history, we are still uncouth barbarians. We are potential love animals, wrenching and floundering in our larval envelopes, trying to fling off the bestial past. Like children or savages, we have delighted ourselves with technics. We have thought they alone might free us. As I remarked before, once launched on this road, there is no retreat. The whirlpool can be conquered, but only by placing it in proper perspective. As it grows, we must learn to cultivate that which must never be permitted to enter the maelstrom -- ourselves. We must never accept utility as the sole reason for education. If all knowledge is of the outside, if none is turned inward, if self-awareness fades into the blind acquiescence of the mass man, then the personal responsibility by which democracy lives will fade also.
Schoolrooms are not and should not be the place where man learns only scientific techniques. They are the place where selfhood, what has been called "the supreme instrument of knowledge," is created. Only such deep inner knowledge truly expands horizons and makes use of technology, not for power, but for human happiness. As the capacity for self-awareness is intensified, so will return that sense of personal responsibility which has been well-nigh lost in the eager yearning for aggrandizement of the asphalt man. The group may abstractly desire an ethic, theologians may preach an ethic, but no group ethic ever could, or should, replace the personal ethic of individual, responsible men. Yet it is just this which the Marxist countries are seeking to destroy; and we, in a vague, good-natured indifference, are furthering its destruction by our concentration upon material enjoyment and our expressed contempt for the man who thinks, to our mind, unnecessarily.
Let it be admitted that the world's problems are many and wearing, and that the whirlpool runs fast. If we are to build a stable cultural structure above that which threatens to engulf us by changing our lives more rapidly than we can adjust our habits, it will only be by flinging over the torrent a structure as taut and flexible as a spider's web, a human society deeply self-conscious and undeceived by the waters that race beneath it, a society more literate, more appreciative of human worth than any society that has previously existed. That is the sole prescription, not for survival -- which is meaningless -- but for a society worthy to survive. It should be, in the end, a society more interested in the cultivation of noble minds than in change.
There is a story about one of our great atomic physicists -- a story for whose authenticity I cannot vouch, and therefore I will not mention his name. I hope, however, with all my heart that it is true. If it is not, then it ought to be, for it illustrates well what I mean by a growing self-awareness, a sense of responsibility about the universe.
This man, one of the chief architects of the atomic bomb, so the story runs, was out wandering in the woods one day with a friend when he came upon a small tortoise. Overcome with pleasurable excitement, he took up the tortoise and started home, thinking to surprise his children with it. After a few steps he paused and surveyed the tortoise doubtfully.
"What's the matter?" asked his friend.
Without responding, the great scientist slowly retraced his steps as precisely as possible, and gently set the turtle down upon the exact spot from which he had taken him up.
Then he turned solemnly to his friend. "It just struck me," he said, "that perhaps, for one man, I have tampered enough with the universe." He turned, and left the turtle to wander on its way.
The man who made that remark was one of the best of the modern men, and what he had devised had gone down into the whirlpool. "I have tampered enough," he said. It was not a denial of science. It was a final recognition that science is not enough for man. It is not the road back to the waiting Garden, for that road lies through the heart of man. Only when man has recognized this fact will science become what it was for Bacon, something to speak of as "touching upon Hope." Only then will man be truly human.